Two years ago the city removed the memorial to Vietnam veterans that was on Heald Square, a concrete island in the middle of Wacker Drive just west of Wabash. “They moved it because of the Wacker Drive construction project,” says Barry Romo, a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “We figured they’d put it back when the project was over.”
The construction of that section of Wacker has been complete for several months, but the memorial hasn’t reappeared–and a lot of veterans are starting to wonder when it will. Says Romo, “It would be funny if the memorial wasn’t so important.”
The memorial means a lot to Romo, who comes from a family of veterans. His father, older brother, nephew, grandfather, and several uncles served in the military. “My grandfather was a disabled vet–he lost three-quarters of his lungs as an infantryman in World War I,” he says. “One of my uncles died in North Africa during World War II. My brother Harold was a ranger in the Pacific. My father was a 44-year-old meat cutter when he went overseas. They changed the rules to say if you’re over 35 you don’t have to go, but my father said, ‘I’ll go anyway.’ In my family everybody served.”
In 1966 Romo decided to do his turn in Vietnam. “I was 18 years old and just out of high school in San Bernardino, California, and I said, ‘I’m going in.’ The funny thing was that my dad wasn’t your stereotypical gung ho type. He didn’t want me to go. He begged me not to go. I said, ‘Dad, you went. Harold went.’ He said, ‘The Second World War was different–that was to fight people who put people in ovens. You’re going to fight some poor farmers who don’t give a damn about either side.’ What the hell, I went anyway.”
Romo became a company commander who trained infantrymen, and he saw plenty of combat. “I killed six men,” he says. “I had men underneath me that died that I loved.”
Romo’s nephew was also in Vietnam at the time. “My brother Harold was 27 years older than me–me and Harold’s son, Robert, were like brothers,” says Romo. “We grew up together. He was only one month younger. Robert got drafted and was sent to Vietnam as part of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.”
In 1968 Robert was killed. “He was shot in the throat and drowned in his own blood,” says Romo. Harold asked that Romo be allowed to escort Robert’s body home. “I flew back to Travis Air Force Base,” says Romo. “Then I rode on a train from Oakland to Los Angeles, where the casket was picked up by the local mortician and driven to Rialto, where my brother lived. This was 1968, and Harold was about 46. He was in the American Legion, very prowar. His American Legion post is named after my nephew. But it virtually destroyed my family. You can’t imagine what that’s like.” He says his brother never got over Robert’s death.
Because Romo had only 45 days left in his tour of duty he wasn’t shipped back to Vietnam. “I got a ticket home on my nephew’s blood,” he says. He was already torn about the war, but as he read and talked about it he came to hate it. In the early 70s he moved to Chicago to help organize a branch of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. To pay his bills, he got a job with the post office. He now works a late-night shift sorting mail, which leaves him time to give antiwar speeches to high school and college students and to be active in the veterans’ rights movement. “The minute a war’s over the so-called patriots who never fought in it–the Bushes and Cheneys–want to raise the flag and call it a victory,” he says. “Well, what about the vets? What about Agent Orange contamination and post-traumatic stress? The Bushes and Cheneys don’t want to hear about that. They didn’t fight in Vietnam, and their kids didn’t fight in Iraq. No, they want to close VA hospitals and cut medical benefits for veterans. It makes me sick.”
In 1982 local Vietnam vets talked to Mayor Jane Byrne about erecting a memorial. “A group of veterans came to me and they said we should have a memorial,” says Byrne. “At the time there were no memorials for Vietnam vets. We said we would erect a fountain and they were happy. They told me, ‘You have no idea how many thousands of veterans are humiliated–there’s still no peace for them.’ This was spectacular for their morale.”
A fountain was installed on Heald Square, which also held Lorado Taft’s statue of three Revolutionary War heroes: George Washington, Robert Morris, and Haym Salomon. The dedication ceremony was on Veterans Day, November 11, 1982. According to a Tribune account of the event, “The $360,000 white granite fountain was an ‘overdue’ thank you, said Mayor Jane Byrne, who turned on the eight-by-30-foot fountain in a noon ceremony in pouring rain.” The ceremony, the story went on, “included representatives of all veterans’ organizations, and was opened with an invocation by Catholic Archbishop Joseph Bernardin.” One of the ceremony’s highlights was when Byrne “placed in the fountain wall a time capsule containing the names of the Chicago-area servicemen who died in the war and a letter from President Reagan commending the city for remembering the war veterans.” Byrne says she put the time capsule “at the foot of the fountain at the east-side end. There was a block of granite left so I could insert the capsule. After that it was sealed up.”
Byrne has vivid memories of the ceremony. “It was a miserably rainy day, but the veterans came out,” she says. “Some came in wheelchairs. It was an unbelievably emotional moment. You had veterans with tears streaming down their faces. As far as I know, this was the first publicly erected memorial to Vietnam vets anywhere in the country.”
The fountain was by no means fancy. “It was a long pool–we joked that it was a bathtub–with a series of sprayers that sent the water in the air, making a little water tunnel,” says Romo. “There was an inscription along the wall–‘Dedicated to the Vietnam Vets of Chicago, Mayor Jane Byrne.’ Something like that. I can’t remember the exact wording. But the minute they put it there we never used Daley Plaza for our Veterans Day or Memorial Day services. This was hallowed ground for Vietnam vets. We always came to that fountain to have our services.”
Then in September 2001 work crews dismantled the fountain and took it away to prepare the area for the $200 million Wacker Drive construction project. By spring of this year almost all of the major construction was finished and Wacker Drive had reopened. Taft’s statue was moved out of storage and installed on the northwest corner of the Wacker and Wabash intersection, which the city has designated Wabash Plaza. But the Vietnam veterans’ memorial wasn’t reinstalled.
“We had memorial services on Wacker even during the construction because this was our site,” says Romo. “We wondered, Where’s the memorial? When is it coming back? We talked to cops and construction workers–no one seemed to know. Some of our guys called the city, but we never got a straight answer. We just got bounced around with the runaround.”
“As part of the construction, all of the plaques, historical markers, and monuments that were on Wacker–and there were others besides the Vietnam veterans’–were removed and kept in safe storage,” says Brian Steele, a spokesman for the transportation department. “They have been refurbished, and they are going to be put back into place.” He says the city tried to be particularly sensitive when it removed the Vietnam veterans’ memorial. “On September 21, 2001, we held a decommission ceremony for that memorial with representatives of several veterans’ groups,” he says. “We took the plaque off the fountain, and we gave it to the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum”–at 1801 S. Indiana. “The plaque is on display there. The idea being that instead of putting the plaque in storage for two years we wanted to have it in some type of venue where people could see it. See, it’s not the old reflection pool that had significance. It’s the plaque.” Steele didn’t know that a time capsule had been embedded in the wall of the fountain, and no one he asked knew about it either.
Spokesmen for the Vietnam Veterans Art Museum say the plaque isn’t in the museum. “The only things we got out of it were some planters and benches that had been around the old fountain,” says Jim Yohnka, a volunteer for the museum. “The plaque and the time capsule–I have no clue where they are.”
Mike Brostowitz, a museum official, says, “I think the contractor who was doing the construction project has the plaque. They were going to bring it here, but for some reason he never brought it. So I don’t know where it is. You should call Alderman [James] Balcer’s office. He should know.”
Balcer, a Vietnam vet and close Daley ally, didn’t return calls for comment. Construction workers finishing up the Wacker project say they don’t know where the plaque is. “I have no idea where they put it,” says one. “It’s probably in a city work yard along with the old fountain. Go ask the city.” Mike Lash of the cultural affairs department, who oversees public art for the city, doesn’t know where it is either.
There’s a new concrete island in the middle of Wacker, but Steele says the memorial fountain won’t be reinstalled there. He explains that the new island isn’t as big as the old one, and besides it’s already been filled with potted plants and trees, part of Mayor Daley’s effort to add greenery to major thoroughfares throughout Chicago. Instead, Steele says, the city plans to create a Lower Wabash Plaza as part of a river walkway. It will include a wall with water running down it, and next to that will be pieces of the original fountain. “Any one that has an inscription will be brought back,” he says. Including the plaque. “We’ll have a recommission ceremony to celebrate the reinstallation of the plaque,” he says, though he doesn’t know when that will be. “We’ve been in contact with veterans’ groups throughout the project, trying to give them status reports.”
There’s another interesting story attached to the missing plaque. It’s not the one originally installed in 1982, but a 1996 replacement, and unlike the original, it doesn’t include Byrne’s name. According to Steele, the replacement plaque was a gift from Vietnamese refugees who’d settled in Chicago, and it’s that plaque–wherever it is–that will get the recommissioning ceremony celebrating its reinstallation. “I don’t want this to be about me, but come on, can you believe this?” says Byrne. “They’re making a big deal about bringing that plaque back? That’s just unbelievable.”
Byrne says this isn’t the first time the city has removed a work of art that bore her name. It also removed the Children’s Fountain from its old location at Wacker just east of Wabash as well as a clock that stood next to the old Water Tower on Michigan Avenue. “They had to move the Children’s Fountain for Wacker’s reconstruction,” she says. “OK, so now what? I called around City Hall to ask where are they going to put the Children’s Fountain now that Wacker’s done. You get a different story everyplace you call.”
Byrne says she’s particularly perturbed that the city is acting as though the Vietnam memorial was installed under Daley. “They’re rewriting history,” she says. “That Vietnam veterans’ fountain was there for 14 years before 1996. It should be dated truthfully. They’re wiping away 14 years of history.” She adds, “The city’s treating the old fountain like it was nothing, but it was blessed–it contained the names of dead soldiers. This is no small thing.”
Romo agrees. “Here’s the problem,” he says. “Daley didn’t serve. His brothers didn’t serve. His father didn’t serve. They don’t know. They don’t care. I can’t believe they’re writing off the fountain like it’s nothing. That was our fountain, our site–we have memories there. The plaque’s nothing. It’s the fountain and the people and the emotions and the memories that are tied up with comradeship. What’s important is being there on that concrete island with your buddies every year. It says something that things stay in the same place. They should have left the fountain where it was. Forget the potted plants. So what if it’s not convenient? Maybe when traffic slowed down on Veterans Day and Memorial Day ’cause we’re having a service there, maybe that 30 seconds of inconvenience got people to remember some veterans.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.