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May/June 2017

CHATTANOOGA CHAPTER 203: Three Days of Welcome Home

BY BUD ALLEY

When the Chattanooga-Hamilton County 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War Commemorative Committee formed, members chose a simple remembrance ceremony at the Chattanooga National Cemetery for its first event. Several hundred attended.

During the post-event evaluation session, members tackled the question: What can we do next year that would involve more Vietnam veterans? As VVA Chapter 203’s representative on the committee, I suggested we create a multi-day event centering around a special guest, Joe Galloway, the Vietnam War correspondent and friend. I had no firm idea of how many people might attend. After all, the event was to culminate on March 29, the official date of Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day. But first I had to see if Joe Galloway would come.

He agreed and his connections to the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Program made things begin to bubble. The Pentagon was willing to work with us by sending a team of oral historians to Chattanooga to conduct formal interviews of Vietnam veterans with Galloway. That removed one big hurdle and opened up opportunities to expand the event based on the 1965 battles in the Ia Drang Valley. What to do to take advantage of Galloway’s presence and how would we welcome home Vietnam veterans and where in the world would we hold such events? Oh, and all without charging admission to any of the events.

The committee was chartered by Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppenger and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, so I looked at publicly owned sites. There were two possible venues that could hold a crowd and were owned by the city. But end of March weather can be iffy and the size of the crowd uncertain, so that ruled out the large city park. I thought we might show the movie We Were Soldiers, but I was uncertain of anything else.

That second site, the First Tennessee Pavilion, an open-air former bus barn, was county-city owned and huge: 106 feet by 420 feet with a 30-foot ceiling. Wow, but could we get it for our venue? And what would we do there?

I had no idea, but figuring the movie showing could be an attraction, I turned my attention to a city-county-owned downtown theatre, the Tivoli, a beautifully restored grand dame. Yes, we could have it. Now I figured I had two sites that would be free and looked around a bit more for a third and there it was: the National Cemetery near downtown Chattanooga, a federal cemetery for soldiers and the burial place of eight of the original recipients of the Medal of Honor. Dynamite! I had all three places located and at no cost—or so I thought.

What I soon found out was that even though the city and county waived the rental fees, there were other costs. For example, the theater was now a venue for plays and no longer had a movie projector or screen. Uh oh. Plus, to show a movie in public required a licensed rental of the movie. At the Pavilion, there were concerns like security, sanitation, and maintenance personnel.

Before long, I realized we needed money and a lot of help to do this event. Did I mention that the committee had no bank account or resources? So I turned to the Daughters of the American Revolution, a patriotic and supportive group of ladies, for their help, and to Chapter 203 to be my go-to source for all other things.

We sought legal counsel to set up a special account to be handled by the chapter and overseen by the committee. Then we set about raising money. But how much would it cost? No idea yet, but we went almost door to door raising funds. We called on friends, businesses, VVA members, and neighbors, and we decided to donate any excess funds to the city to build a permanent memorial to Vietnam veterans in downtown Chattanooga.


WHAT TO DO?

So what in the world would we do at the Pavilion and what day? I figured we would do Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday since Wednesday was the 29th. I decided the event should end at the National Cemetery, and we would show the movie on Tuesday. I thought a big dinner party might be the way to start off the three days. The Pavilion offered a covered venue, but how many people would come? Again, I had no idea, even less how much would it cost to feed so many people. And what would they do once they ate?

So I asked some friends to come to Chattanooga and help us draw a crowd to complement the movie and Galloway’s presence. First I called Joe Marm, Medal of Honor recipient from the Ia Drang battles, to see if he would come. Then I called Ernie Savage, who fought with the Lost Platoon at LZ X-Ray, and Jim Lawrence, fellow author, as well as Bronze Star and Purple Heart awardee, and asked them to come. Then I called my dear friend Henry Dunn, a hero of both battles. All said yes.

Working with the executive committee of Chapter 203 and the co-chairs of the big committee—Linda Moss Mines, the county historian and member of DAR and AVVA, along with Bill Raines, a Chapter 203 member—things started to crystalize. Event plans were falling in place, money was being raised; now for the hard work of coordinating all three big events. I laid out the plans and set a captain for the venues. Charlie Hobbs,VVA’s National Membership Chair, took care of the cemetery. Bill Norton, president of Chapter 203, handled the Pavilion, while I did the Tivoli.

We had several committee meetings where we walked the sites and figured out what to do and how to do it. I contacted local vendors and friends of veterans to help, and cajoled local media to provide some free help to get out the word. Camping World said they would donate and prepare the food as a public service donation—for 1,200 people. The local Coca Cola folks said they would provide the drinks, and Chattanooga Baking set out 1,500 Moon Pies for dessert. We borrowed a stage, got Erlanger Hospital to donate some cash and a big banner for a backdrop, and enlisted the former lead singer of the Impressions, Rev. Willie Kitchens, to put together a patriotic chorus. Then a chance encounter led me to the Jericho Brass, a nonprofit forty-two-piece brass band. Would they like to play at our event? Did they know any good military songs? Sure.

The Pavilion is one huge building, but the question remained: How many people would come? We decided to rent seats for a thousand, along with tables for them to eat on. That still left a big space. Well, Chapter 203 owns the Tennessee Wall and flags and that would be a great focal point. And we decided to use a large area for the DAR ladies and another for the Commemoration team to pin Vietnam veterans. In addition, we offered a table to a pro bono legal team that helps veterans, and a local history business set up a display of Vietnam-era memorabilia. We asked Col. Many Bears Grinder, Tennessee Commissioner of Veterans’ Affairs, to come over from Nashville to be the keynote speaker. She did and we had a grand event to start the week. We fed 1,250 veterans and family members.

Tuesday’s movie showing was simple by comparison. The rental and theater people handled the technical chores, while the DAR ladies did the greeting in the lobby. There were three showings of the movie that day, followed by panel discussions by participants in that battle. Everything was open to the public free of charge. It was historic. The panel of Ia Drang survivors had a grand time interacting with the audience, answering questions, and posing with them for photos. The last showing was for the high school JROTC, Sea Cadets, and history students.

For the celebration finale, we conducted a somber memorial remembrance for the fallen from the Tennessee Valley area at the National Cemetery. The cemetery staff was amazing and Charlie Hobbs was a superb captain. Galloway, Marm, and Lawrence, along with Co-Chairs Linda Mines and Bill Raines, rode in a limousine escorted by more than fifty Patriot Guard riders to the venue. The thunder rumbled across the cemetery like artillery as they approached.

JROTC Cadets lined the venue to escort the speakers to the podium. In front of the podium were 1,291 small flags representing the 1,291 Tennesseans who gave their all. As colors were posted, the young men’s chorus from the Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts sang the National Anthem. A wreath was laid by both mayors followed by their remarks. I introduced my friend Joe Galloway, who gave a wonderful tribute to those who fought and died in the Vietnam War.

Following his remarks, ten readers—five from Chapter 203 and five from the DAR—stepped to the microphone and read the names of the 152 local fallen. As each name was read, a light in front of a flag from across the serenity pond was turned on. Following the 21-volley salute, the program ended with “Echo Taps” wrapping the hills of the cemetery.

What three days! Final expenses are in and some $10,000 will be donated to the Chattanooga/Hamilton Committee to erect a permanent Vietnam veterans memorial.

Longtime Chattanooga Chapter 203 life member Bud Alley is author of The Ghosts of Green Grass, a book that examines the final stages of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

DO IT YOURSELF
  • Make it a community event around March 29
  • Involve local government for support to form a committee
  • Include people outside the chapter in the committee
  • Set up a pass-through special events account for fundraising
  • Set up subcommittees for special tasks and delegate responsibility
  • Involve the entire community
  • Use all the free media: TV, radio, newsprint, and interviews
  • Put up posters
  • Encourage everyone to contribute to the event
  • Make it a memorable celebration


Departments
Also:
Sen. Joe Manchin III, Honorary Life Senator Two Commendations
Grant Coates and Barry Rice
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