Historic memorabilia found at Northland Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial

“It’s good that it’s this box and not this one,” said Daniel Hartman, program curator of the Duluth Veteran’s Museum, as he moved his light from one box to another. Both boxes were at the top of a very tall shelf in a dim back room at the Duluth Depot. One had about 10 boxes stacked on top of it, and the other was on the very top.

Hartman carried the box down the ladder and set it on the table. Inside this particular box was a collection of items wrapped in tissue paper that have been left at the Northland Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, located along the Lakewalk.

A gloved hand unwrapped each item with the utmost care, setting them down on a white sheet of paper to allow for a closer look. Hartman said items such as these tend to show up the most around Memorial Day and are placed near the memorial, which is inscribed with the names of Vietnam soldiers who never made it home.

“It started out with one name, and we ended up with 136 names,” said Dwight Nelson, member of the Northland Vietnam Veteran’s Association and designer of the monument.

Dedicated on Memorial Day in 1992, the memorial was created to “recognize those [who were] missing in action and killed in action,” Nelson said. It includes names from eight surrounding counties and 39 communities, according to a Duluth News Tribune article from 1992 titled “Lakefront Memorial to honor area Vietnam Vets.”

The significance of this place has not been forgotten. It is positioned so that when the sun rises, beams of light will shine in through the windows and along the list of names, according to an article written by Nelson in 1991 titled “A Project Everyone’s Proud Of.”

The design was created to represent the five branches of the service, along with a bunker to protect the names from Lake Superior. There is also a seven-foot tower at the side, which lightens at night “so that the memorial will have a direct bond with the heavens,” Nelson’s article read.

“Although the memorial is located in a high traffic area, it still lends itself to solitude at different times of the day,” Nelson said in his Duluth News Tribune article “Lakefront Memorial to honor area Vietnam Vets.”

“To me the wall is always at its most depressing state,” Hartman said. He explained that the weight of what the wall represents is what creates this feeling. “You have to be there when nobody else is there. It’s a cold, eerie, lonely feeling,” Hartman said.

This is a place to remember.

“A lot of things have been left there: photographs, memorabilia, a lot of notes,” Nelson said.

Some of these items have been collected and saved in a box at the Veteran’s Museum, though nobody knows what may have been left that others have taken. According to the Duluth News Tribune article “1,000 dedicate Vietnam War memorial,” many relatives brought “flowers, flags and photographs as they gathered at the wall” on dedication day in 1992.

While some may not understand leaving such sentiment, others see it as a way to commemorate. One paper heart with the words, “We remember you, Steven Thomas Hennessy” says everything for itself.

“It’s crazy stuff,” said Bradley Bennett, member of the Northland Vietnam Veteran’s Association. “[Things like] a packet of cigarettes with a note in it, ‘The last time I saw you we shared a smoke.’ It’s kind of been a place where a little soul searching goes on.”

“To me they’re all, they’re just, sad,” Hartman said. “They’re an immediate reflection of someone’s death. The fact that they exist means the family’s still mourning them.”

Other things that have been left include a Purple Heart medal, a boot, dog tags and a POW/MIA bracelet. The Veteran’s Museum has had several of the POW/MIA bracelets turned into them throughout the years, Hartman said. Created by a group of college students in the early 1970s to raise awareness to the POW/MIA issue, these bracelets each had a name on them. Those that Hartman has received have been reunited with family members.

Bennett recalled his own bracelet. The name inscribed on it was Orval Skarman, and they were classmates of 1965. Skarman is listed on the wall as MIA.

“I thought, here’s a guy that him and I were so much alike in school, and I got to come home and he didn’t,” Bennett said. After years of wearing it on his wrist, Bennett had the bracelet welded to his motorcycle. Now Orval rides along with him.

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