LOCKPORT – An emotional ceremony welcomed a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to Town Hall on Thursday.
Several hundred people gathered on the lawn of Town Hall. “I’m overwhelmed by the response from this community. It was heartwarming,” said Councilman Paul W. Siejak, who last year had the idea to bring the Florida-based wall to Lockport to mark to 40th anniversary of the end of the war.
It will be open round-the-clock, rain or shine, until 7 a.m. Monday at Town Hall, 6560 Dysinger Road.
Counting auxiliary costs, the town will spend about $15,000 to bring in the Wall, a three-fifths scale model of the official V-shaped wall in Washington, D.C., created by a veterans’ group in Brevard County, Fla.
It contains the names of all 58,272 service members killed in Vietnam, just as the Washington wall does. Even before the ceremony began, visitors were stenciling names onto sheets of paper and checking with the volunteers manning the directory to find out where a particular friend or relative’s name could be found on the 300-foot-long wall.
The wall was trucked to Lockport on Wednesday with a gigantic motorcycle escort estimated at 600 riders, which brought it from the staging area at The Chapel at CrossPoint in Amherst, down Millersport Highway and South Transit Road to Lockport.
Siejak, a nonveteran whose son is in the Navy, said the motorcade was hailed by “people standing alongside South Transit, cheering and waving the flag.”
He said the sight of an old man standing along the road in a full-dress Army uniform, “saluting everybody like a 19-year-old Marine in a 75-year-old body,” filled his eyes with tears as he rode his motorcycle.
On Thursday, Siejak told the crowd that the men on the wall “were men who remained loyal to their country during a time when it was cool to burn draft cards, brave men who fought and did their duty when it was popular not to.”
Former Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein, now chairman of the state Commission of Corrections, added to the emotion with a powerful eight-minute speech.
Beilein said of the thousands of draftees on the wall, “They did not suddenly find a moral objection to the war.”
Beilein, who served a tour of duty as an Army medic in Vietnam in 1966, reminded the audience that 61 percent of those killed in Vietnam were 21 years old or younger.
He said they were inspired by the idealism of President John F. Kennedy’s famous call, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
The men on the wall include 154 posthumous Medal of Honor recipients, including John Bobo, who was one of 79 Niagara County residents killed in the war.
“But what all these statistics do not tell us,” Beilein said, “is the perpetual heartache and grief that has been suffered by the Gold Star families, who prayed every single day that their loved ones would return safe.”
County Clerk Wayne F. Jagow, a Lutheran minister who gave the invocation and benediction, said his college roommate, Michael Witkop, pilot of a Phantom jet, is listed on the wall.
“To have that come to us is a wonderful reminder of something we can’t let go of, and that is to say thank you,” Jagow said.
Mike Krege, of Lancaster, a member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, survived that war, only to see his son Travis Krege, an Army infantryman, killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb that shattered his Humvee.
“Just a waste. I’m somewhat anti-government,” Krege said. “I don’t like what they did to us, and I don’t like what they did to my son. They should have learned. That’s what all these guys thought.”
Gary Heacox, of Lockport, a Marine who served a 20-month tour in Vietnam with a self-propelled howitzer battery, said he once had the chance to view the memorial in Washington.
“I wasn’t ready,” he said. But this weekend in Lockport, “It’s time, after 50 years.”
Heacox joined the volunteer security crew for the visit. “I’m kind of anticipating in the middle of the night, there’s going to be a few people out here,” he said. “They just want to be by themselves.”