A memorial honoring Marines and sailors who died during the Vietnam War and were part of the "Fighting Fifth" Marine Regiment is getting closer to being set in stone.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the memorial, a work of passion for Vietnam veterans Steve Colwell and Nick Warr, was held Friday, Oct. 27 in the memorial garden at Camp San Mateo. Participants included members of the 5th Marine Regiment, representatives from the Dana Point 5th Marine Regiment Support Group, and active-duty Marines.
"The construction of this new memorial at the 5th Marine Regiment command post symbolizes the respect, gratitude, and honor today's generation of Marines hold for Vietnam veterans," said Lt. Col. John Gianopoulos, Executive Officer, 5th Marine Regiment. "This memorial will remind today's Marines of the tenacity, courage, and character of the Vietnam Marines at Khe Sanh, Da Nang, An Hoa, and many more battles. It will provide us with a powerful reminder of what we owe to our nation and how we must represent the Marine Corps."
The $400,000 to fund the memorial is coming from private and public sources. Four South Orange County cities have stepped up so far to help: Dana Point, with $10,000; San Clemente, $5,000; Rancho Santa Margarita, $2,500; and Irvine, $10,000. Colwell said he will ask the Laguna Beach and Laguna Niguel city councils for help in the next few weeks.
Concept of the planned monument honoring Marines and sailors lost in the Vietnam War. Image from 5th Marine Regiment Support Group.
"After four years of fundraising, this is finally becoming a reality," said Colwell, who was severely wounded in a bomb blast Dec. 16, 1967, in Vietnam. "It's exciting to honor the 2,706 Marines and sailors. It will validate for the families the bravery and service of those lost in Vietnam."
The garden was created and is funded by the Dana Point 5th Marine Regiment Support Group. It is home to Marines who have died in action and is a place of reflection for those who remember them. Two monuments there honor Marines and sailors who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A Purple Heart Monument was installed in the garden in February.
"Our Vietnam veterans suffered untold injures by our nation not acknowledging them," said Terry Rifkin, executive director of the Dana Point group. "Vietnam veterans are as great a generation as any our country has ever produced. This monument of epic proportions, and unlike anything else at Camp Pendleton, will be a remarkable way to say thank you to those who served by recognizing those who did not make it home."
The 50-ton black granite memorial is being crafted by Vermont's Rock of Ages. It will have six panels honoring the 2,706 Marines, Navy corpsmen, and a chaplain who died in Vietnam while serving in the 5th Marine Regiment. Their names will be etched on the panels surrounding a 14-foot-tall black granite spire. It also will include the names of Marines and sailors who died as part of the 2nd Battalion, Fourth Marines.
A battle cross sits on display during sunrise, April 15, 2016, at Avon Park Air Force Range, Fla. USAF Photo by Senior Airman Ryan Callaghan.
The image of the iconic battle cross — helmet, rifle, bayonet, and boots — will be etched on all four sides of the granite. The monument also will have a combat chronology of the 5th Marines during the Vietnam War.
The 5th Marines, the most highly decorated regiment in the Marine Corps, deployed March 5, 1966, to Vietnam. They remained there for five years, until April 1971.
Colwell and Warr — who also was wounded in Vietnam — came up with the idea for the monument in 2014 after returning to Camp Pendleton for a 1st Marine Division reunion.
Colwell, 73, who served as an officer with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and Warr, 72, who fought as an infantry officer with Charlie Company in the 5th Marines, noted during the visit that there was nothing in the garden recognizing those who lost their lives in Vietnam.
A Vietnam War veteran speaks with a Marine before the start of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment "Dark Horse" Reunion at the San Mateo Memorial Garden at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Shellie Hall.
"I feel strongly there should be a representation for the Marines and sailors who were killed in Vietnam," said Colwell. "These young men raised their hands and enlisted in the Marine Corps for an unpopular war."
The hardest job, they said, was finding the names of those who served with the 5th Marine Regiment and died in Vietnam. That fell to Brian Coty, a board member of the Dana Point 5th Marine Regiment Support Group, who has worked more than two years with the Coffelt Database of Vietnam casualties to make sure no name is left out.
Among the names are 13 Marines awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor for personal acts of valor.
The monument is set to arrive at Camp Pendleton on March 29, declared National Vietnam Veteran's Day by President Donald Trump. It will be installed in the garden during a ceremony on Memorial Day, May 28, 2018.