The Vietnam Tribute Wall came roaring into Payson Thursday morning with an honor guard of Vietnam veterans on hogs and Harleys and perhaps 1,000 cheering, flag-waving residents.
About two dozen vets on motorcycles met up with the panel truck in Holbrook Wednesday and escorted the panels with the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in that wrenching, 20-year conflict to the staging ground at the Mazatzal Casino. At the casino on Thursday morning, hundreds of additional riders formed up to escort the wall on the next leg of its journey down Main Street.
Clusters of people started gathering on Main Street about 8:30 a.m. -- on a street festooned with flags and banners. A fire department ladder truck extended its ladder over the street with a giant American flag lashed to the railing, to form an improvised triumphal arch for the deafening procession of big motorcycles, mostly ridden by vets in leathers -- decorated with medals and patches.
The procession appeared shortly after nine, led by a truck with flashing lights followed by the endless parade of bikers, tooling along two and three abreast to occupy one lane of the closed off street.
People clapped, waved flags, put their hands to their chests, stood in somber silence and held children up to see.
Many of the people in the procession and lining the route had been directly touched by the losing struggle that extended from 1955 to 1975 and claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese. But many others too young to remember the war or have any personal connection to the names on the wall also came out to honor the veterans living and dead in a way the vets were denied when they first came home to a deeply divided nation.
Dick Low, who served on an ammunition ship in Vietnam and retired to Payson four years ago, watched the motorcycles and trucks flow past. "I came out of respect for the ones who survived and the ones who didn't. This is just terrific. I think they did very well for a town our size."
Wall organizers said the traveling exhibit rarely provokes such an outpouring of community response simply by driving into town, said Payson Councilor Michael Hughes, who rode his Harley in the procession.
Jan and Bruce Griffey watched the show pass from a bench half way down Main Street, casual and low key, like most of the crowd. Six-year residents of Star Valley, they'd seen the Tribute Wall before in Wisconsin. Her first husband was an electrician aboard a ship in Vietnam.
"I was the wife of a Navy guy -- it was a tough life. He was gone a lot."
She said the ceremonies and attention paid to the arrival of the wall and the vets themselves was long overdue. "They should have had it when they first got home -- they were treated horribly. It's just taken too long -- I understand why some of them feel the way they do."
The truck carrying the wall segments moved quickly to Green Valley Park and veterans lined up to begin off loading the panels -- while hundreds of people milled about on the grass on a perfect spring day. Within about two hours, the black gleam of the wall tapering into the grass at each end stood in the bright light, dark against the green grass, with its heartbreaking burden of names.
Even as the workers bolted the panels to a track mounted on a wooden base and supported from behind by metal struts, people began to gather in front of the wall to touch certain names.
Jim Bennett, a Marine translator and machine gunner, brought his three grandchildren and his daughter to see the wall -- and touch the names of his friends.
Bennett's unit operated about five miles south of the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Vietnam and often set up ambushes along infiltration routes. Sometimes, Bennett would spend the night in the jungle with a night vision scope and a radio, to call in air strikes on North Vietnamese units passing through. One night a 14-man enemy patrol found him and chased him a long way through the jungle, the bullets tearing through the underbrush on each side.
He came this day for Ben Ward, Howard Bledsoe and Richard Thunman -- all Marines killed in the bush on patrol or in ambush setups that went wrong.
They were each the kinds of men you might die for -- or who might die for you.
He remembers the night that Ward died. Bennett was supposed to be on that patrol, but for some reason the other machine gunner took his slot. The seven-man squad intended to set up an ambush along a supply route, but instead were themselves ambushed.
The rest of the Marines sprinted the quarter mile to the ambush fight when the shooting started, only to be pinned down by mortar fire themselves. Dan Joyce, the machine gunner who took Bennett's place that night, had both his legs blown off, but survived.
However, Bennett found Ward's torso in a little stream. Ward was a little guy -- blond, blue-eyed and cheerful. When Bennett found his friend's body, Ward's eyes were frozen open and minnows swam in his hair. It is an image that still plays out in Bennett's dreams. It took years of effort for Bennett to work through the emotions after he got home. He spent years on the street and could work only fitfully.
He says that memorials and events meant to honor the veterans stir that all up, but that he has a duty to come for Ward and Bledsoe and Thunman.
Last night, he said, "I woke up in the middle of the night and started crying. It shakes me."
"Why were you crying?" asked his grandson, who had been fiddling with a hand-held flag and half listening.
"I feel guilty about surviving -- when all these other guys died," said Bledsoe quietly, ruffling his grandson's hair.
And so it went, on a perfect, breezy day before the black wall on the green grass -- as the first of a heartsick parade of people came to stand before the black panels reflecting the sky. Each in turn stared in a hopeless effort to comprehend how such small names could occupy so large a space. And then almost every one, reached out to touch a name, soft as a caress.