As 1965 Vietnam War veteran Norman Ralph West sees it, “approximately 250 guys” from South Florida died in Vietnam, but their families and friends have no specific memorial to call their own.
That changes this Memorial Day when the city of Doral will take a special sculpture out of storage and dedicate it at Veterans Park — the first known Vietnam War Memorial for Miami-Dade’s dead.
“There may be some plaques scattered around,” West said by telephone from his home in Redland. “But as far as an actual monument dedicated to the guys that lost their lives from the Miami-Dade area, I’m not aware of it. As far as I know this will the first and only one.”
West, who served in Company C, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, said he and his wife, Lois, decided to do this some years ago after Ralph was searching on the Web for a place to honor the fallen and realized there was none. For them it’s personal. Lois remembers Coral Gables native Private First Class Harold S. Higginbotham, who was killed three months into his tour on Feb. 3, 1968, in Thua Thien Province. School mates remember fellow 1st Cav PFC Ronald H. Luke, who died over there, too, at age 19.
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The Wests commissioned sculptor Richard Arnold, also a Vietnam veteran, to make the monument. It’s a $4,000, 150-pound, 4-foot tall bronze rendering of the Battlefield Cross like one he made for Mineral Wells, Texas.
“A city as big as Miami should certainly have a Vietnam Memorial, just that simple,” Arnold said by telephone from his studio in Telluride, Colorado, this week, adding that he served in Da Nang in 1965 as an Army Military Policeman.
For the Wests’ version, he used “real artifacts” — boots, an original vintage M-16 and helmet — all three “actually served in Vietnam,” donated by veterans in Texas and Colorado. “I’m really kind of a stickler on that,” he said. “I put them all together, I sculpt it here and there, and I life cast them.”
At Doral’s City Hall, Barbara Hernandez of the Parks and Recreation Department said she searched herself and was also surprised to realize there was no such memorial in the county. The city took custody of the sculpture in an unveiling ceremony on Veterans Day then put it in storage while they figure out a way to give it a proper display, “a pedestal or stand to bolt it down.” It needs to be fixed in place to make sure nobody tries to make off with it.
Memorial Day will bring a proper dedication ceremony in Doral’s Veterans Park at 10190 NW 33rd St., which is locked at night and patrolled by police, something that pleases the Wests. “I started looking into this years ago,” said West, who will be 75 when it’s finally dedicated. But it will mark an anniversary of sorts — 40 years since he left the service to get married, work and raise three kids.
“We didn’t lose the war. We didn’t sign any papers. We didn’t surrender,” he said this week. “We didn’t do anything. Basically, because of the politics of the country at the time, and we were so tired of it, we walked away.”
While there are war memorials scattered around the state, and county, the Wests see this one as specifically honoring the sacrifice of local service members, draftees and volunteers alike, who died in that long ago, faraway war. They number 256 alone from Miami-Dade County, according to military historian Anthony Atwood of South Florida’s emerging Miami Military Museum and Memorial. “Killed in action, died of wounds, illness, disease, or accident,” he said by email, “all 256 gave their lives.”
The Virtual Vietnam War Wall Memorial lists 179 fallen just from Miami.