comrades forever ...

Walls & Bridges

The Moving Wall, a portable replica of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, is one veteran's tribute to the sacrifices made by his fallen comrades.

By Michael Oricchio, staff writer
San Jose Mercury News: July 16, 1990

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Everything seemed to come together for San Jose native John Devitt when he attended the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. nearly eight years ago.

Not until then did the former Army helicopter door gunner realize that anyone wanted to recognize the sacrifices made by more than 58,000 of his dead brothers in arms.

Not until then did the recurring problems he'd been dealing with since serving in Vietnam from '67 to '69 cease. For years he had suffered from violent temper flares, the sweats, bad dreams and the boredom of going from an intense, adrenaline-pumping existence to normal workaday life.

"That's why I wanted to do something. People really did care and I wanted to let other vets know they care," says the 41-year-old Devitt. "I wanted to capture that spirit I felt in Washington, D.C. and sort of spread it around and share it with people who couldn't get there."

To do that, he got together with a couple of friends in January 1983 and spent 22 months and about $28,000 in donations building the Moving Wall, his original, aptly named half-scale plexiglas replica of the memorial in Washington.

These days, there are two Moving Walls that tour around the country during the year.

A third serves as backup in case there's a booking problem. Now, however, that third replica is on display at San Jose's Municipal Rose Garden, at the corner of Dana and Naglee avenues, until its two-week appearance there ends Saturday.

Gone for almost a year, the Moving Wall has returned to the city where both creator and creation were born.

"After having traveled all over the country with it," says Devitt, "it's good to bring it home and let people know it's still going on."

Since the original Moving Wall made its first appearance in Tyler, Texas, it and its two counterparts have been refurbished. Currently, each measures 250 feet long, 4 feet tall at each end and six feet tall in the center. Each is made of aluminum with the 58,175 names of the American dead in Vietnam silk-screened upon black panels, which are supported by metal braces driven into the ground. All told, these sheetmetal replicas cost about $60,000 each, the money raised through donations.

But the emotional price that came with building them was probably much higher.

"It was pretty hard dealing with it on a daily level - just all those names," says Devitt.

"It didn't seem like we were ever going to finish. There were times when I wanted to just get into my truck and leave," he adds. "I never left. I just said, 'Let's go for it.' And that meant stop when you finish or die trying."

When he started, Devitt thought the original replica would just be a weekend project. Shortly after he started, however, he decided to give up his maintenance work at a half-dozen San Francisco apartment buildings and devote all of his time to the model.

Eventually Devitt, who is single, could no longer afford his Mission District apartment and took to sleeping in his car or at the homes of friends.

"He's so dedicated to those 58,000-plus fellows on that wall. That's been his life," says his 68-year-old father, Mike Devitt, a former arson investigator for the San Jose Fire Department.

"It's like an artist," adds his dad, who now lives in Capitola. "How can I put it? Like an artist."

At first glance, his son the artist - who graduated from James L:ick High School in 1966 - looks like a freeze-frame still in someone's old photo album of the Sizzlin' '60s.

A black baseball cap sits atop his long, muddy brown hair flecked with gray, which hangs halfway down his back in a ponytail. A splotchy beard hides half his face, while big black plastic aviator-style glasses cover the rest.

His tall, lanky frame is clothed in the uniform of the day: black Vietnam vets t-shirt with an American bald eagle on it, faded Levi's and black sneakers. He wears an AMVETS ring given to him at an appearance and three bracelets with the names of MIAs etched on them.

"Underneath that beard and that long hair and those dark glasses, he's a hell of a good guy," says his father. "It makes me proud, not just as a father but as an American."

Apparently, others agree. As his project developed, Devitt found support from the Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd., the San Jose-area group to which he belongs. Eventually the memorial replicas became the primary project of that group, which has grown nationally since it was formed in January 1982.

"John, he's unique. He sees the wall as his Holy Grail. I guess that sort of colors his vision," says Bill Dupras, 45, who acts as president of the veterans group. "It's very all-consuming for him. It's almost an obsession."

Devitt also had a lot of help from two other local Vietnam vets who've stuck by him since the beginning.

Longtime pal, Gerry Haver, a Mountain View tree trimmer who served on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, was one of the first people to be inspired by Devitt's idea.

"John and I were sitting around talking, and he mentioned that he wanted to get some project going," says the 47-year-old Haver, who threw in $2,000 of his savings along with the $500 or so Devitt had already put in the pot. It was all they had at the time.

"Then when he decided how big one side was going to be, I said, 'Oh, what have we gotten ourselves into?' " he adds with a laugh.

The pair took the idea to Norris Shears, another Navy vet who owns the Screentique silk-screening shop in south-central San Jose (by michael gill). Eventually that became their base of operations.

"I didn't know what to think. It was a hell of a project to take on," says the 47-year-old Shears. "Hell, I don't say no to anything."

In September 1983, Devitt and company went to the San Jose City Council for an endorsement, which they felt would help them raise more money for the model. Instead, the council gave them $16,000. As payback, of sorts, Devitt hopes to build a fourth, permanent model and a small museum in a city park.

After the original project was finished, and the demand for appearances grew, Devitt built a second model in 1986 and then the third in 1989.

The Moving Walls each visit 22 to 28 cities around the United States annually. Devitt says 75,000 to 100,000 people come out to the memorials during their weeklong appearances at each spot. There's a certain similarity to what happens in each city.

"Basically it's what happens at the wall in Washington, D.C.," he says. "You just see the whole emotional spectrum played out."

Devitt travels by truck with one of the memorials - in fact, he recently returned from an appearance in Concord, N.H. - while someone else travels with the other. The third is used as they need it.

He doesn't pull down a salary, his traveling expenses and lodging are provided by the organizations that bring the Moving Wall to town. Those sponsors also pay a $2,500 fee that goes for maintenance and insurance for the structures and a 30 cents-a-mile transportation charge.

No admission is charged at the display sites.

Still, there's a big payback for Devitt.

"A lot of these plaques here are from the places I've gone, organizations that have had the wall. It's just their way of saying thanks," he says, looking around the cramped, tiny Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd. Office in San Jose. The walls are jammed with citations, awards and photos.

"It's a real rewarding thing to be doing," he says. "It brings people together. People for the war. People against the war. It has a lasting effect."


© 2013 Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd.