May 09, 2022

HISTORIC HAVENS: New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial

By Lori Draz

As we commemorate Memorial Day, Historic Havens encourages your visit to a stirring and striking site that honors the valor of veterans of the Vietnam War and explores the complex history of the Vietnam War Era, New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel.

This is actually two memorial sites in one. The Vietnam Era Museum is the first museum of its kind in the United States. Its exhibits offer fascinating and personal insights into much more than just the political, cultural and historical time of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Through photographs, letters and journal entries, visitors get to understand the broad spectrum of emotions, experiences, hopes, confusion, joys and sorrows of these young soldiers and the lasting impact this conflict has had on American culture and in New Jersey. Ongoing public and school programs and exhibitions explore the complexities of the Vietnam Era in a way that is relevant today. The museum staff works with more than 10,000 New Jersey students and teachers each year. 

The second part is the outdoor memorial grounds, a place of reflection with powerful sculptures and a veteran 1964 Huey helicopter, which was one of the main transports of war. The various memorial spots include a Women’s Veterans Meditation Garden, a New Jersey Gold Star Family Memorial, a Vietnamese American Memorial, a Purple Heart Memorial and a US War Dogs Memorial. It is a great place to take pictures, meditate, read and remember. 

The memorial was designed by Vietnamese designer Hien Nguyen, who came to the United States as a college student in the last days of the war. The 200-foot diameter, open-air amphitheater is lined with 366 black granite panels engraved with the names of those who died or remain missing in action. Its circular form is meant to embrace those names on the highly polished granite wall. The tunnel entrances symbolize the transition from the safety and security of our world to the different realities of war. The trees lining the walkways evoke images of soldiers on tactical road patrol, and the memorial’s centerpiece is a huge red oak, the state tree. Finally, the three bronze figures under the tree represent men and women of all races and backgrounds – symbolizing those who came home, the women who served and, those who did not return. The powerful bronze statues are the creations of Thomas Jay Warren of Trenton. 

The conflicts that led to Vietnam War date back to the Truman era, though some historians trace its roots to the 1800s. The core of the dispute was that communist regime of North Vietnam and its southern allies, the Viet Cong, battled against South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. More than 3 million people, including 58,000 Americans, were killed in the conflict. Of those, 1,562 New Jersey men and one woman did not return home.

The museum and memorial are operated as a nonprofit publicly funded by the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation (NJVVMF) whose mission is to make sure that the history, legacies and lasting impact of the Vietnam Era as told through the eyes of New Jersey’s Veterans, will never be forgotten.

The current exhibition is “As You Were: Stephen Warner Words and Images from Vietnam.” Born in Skillman, Warner was killed one week before his 25th birthday on Feb. 14, 1971, while working in territory near the DMZ controlled by the North Vietnamese Army. His story is told with the photographs he took and the words that he wrote. It shows that Warner was strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam yet willing to risk his life to take part in it. 

On Monday, May 30, the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial will hold its annual Memorial Day ceremony at 11 am. This is one of the largest and most moving programs in the nation, and attendees are invited both in person and virtually. The event will feature speakers, a wreath ceremony and musical entertainment. The museum will remain open until 2 pm following the ceremony.

Along with a number of ongoing programs, additional ceremonies are planned in September and for Veterans Day. Everyone is invited to the Third Thursday VetChat led by their Vietnam Veteran Volunteers (njvvmf.org/third-thursday-vetchats) and ongoing Scholar Series (njvvmf.org/scholars-series).

The complex is easy to get to; it is located in the parking corner of the PNC Bank Arts Center (exit 116 on the Garden State Parkway) with plenty of parking, easy-to-navigate walking paths and even picnic tables for lunch. 

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 to 4 pm. Tours led by a Vietnam veteran are available daily and on request and offer an even deeper experience. Contact Michele Knell at 732–335–0033, ext. 108 to arrange one. The memorial is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The website is a rich resource of the history of the complex and of the Vietnam War, and it contains a detailed calendar of events, ways to memorialize and to donate and volunteer, so visit njvvmf.org/events to learn more. 

Photos courtesy of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial