At four o’clock on a June afternoon, a shadow falls across the engraved names
of William A. Norrenbrock, David M. Walters, John A. Hottell III, Gerald L. Risinger,
and Osborne Mattingly Jr. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadow cast by
the arm of the huge sundial eventually highlights one man’s name on the anniversary
of his death.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort was designed to honor Kentuckians
who fought and died in the Vietnam War. It brings together an intricate combination
of history, heritage, mathematics, and heroes. It is one of the most popular
sites in the capital city.
Lexington architect Helm Roberts designed the memorial in the form of a large
stainless-steel sundial, which casts its shadow upon a granite plaza. Here the
names of 1,102 Kentuckians, including 23 missing in action, are etched into
the 327 irregular slabs that make up the memorial.
“Each name is engraved into the plaza, and placed so that the tip of the shadow
touches his name on the anniversary of his death,” explains Roberts, who served
as a Naval carrier pilot between the Korean and the Vietnam wars. “This gives
each fallen veteran his own personal Memorial Day.”
In designing the memorial, Helms used trigonometry and geometry he learned
in high school. The calculations were made using a CAD (computer-aided drawing)
He explains: “The location of each name is fixed mathematically, by the date
of casualty, the geographic location of the memorial, the height of the gnomon
(that’s the arm on a sundial that casts the shadow), and the physics of solar
movement. The stones were then designed and cut to avoid dividing any individual
name. The resulting pattern suggests a ‘web,’ symbolic of the entangling nature
of this war.”
Plaques installed at the foreground of the memorial illustrate Roberts’ concept.
“There is a (circular) sun line for every day of the year. We put a name on
the sun line and divided it up into hours, with each hour representing a year
of the Vietnam War (1962 to 1975).” Roman numerals were engraved in the stone
representing VI in the morning to VII in the evening. Most of the names of Kentucky’s
fallen are etched between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.—1967, 1968, and 1969.
These years saw the heaviest casualties of the war, with 1968 the heaviest
Kentuckians missing in action have been given a special place behind the gnomon
where the shadow never falls.
“Once they are officially declared dead, their names are placed on the plaza
underneath the shadow,” says Roberts. Once all the names have been resolved,
that slab of granite—the only one finished on both sides—will be turned over.
Besides marking Kentucky’s fallen veterans and those missing in action, the
monument commemorates another significant passage: 11 minutes past 11 o’clock
on the 11th day of November—Armistice Day.
Formerly observed in the United States in commemoration of the signing of the
armistice ending World War I in 1918, it has been incorporated into the observances
of Veterans Day since 1954. At the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the shadow
falls over an etched marking, exactly one minute wide, to observe the traditional
period of silence.
Roberts calls the memorial a place of remembrance and healing. He says, “Alone,
as families, and in small groups they come to pay respect to those individuals
who gave their lives in service to America. Veterans gather to relive their
experiences, and to give recognition and comfort to each other.”
It is also a place for recording and learning about the history of the Vietnam
“The pattern of names provides a graphic history of the duration and intensity
of the war—its beginning, its most intense action, and its final conclusion,”
he says. “It provides a lasting chronology of the Vietnam War, engraved in stone.”
“If you look at the names, you can tell the history of the war,” says Jim Halvatgis,
executive director of the memorial and deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department
of Veterans Affairs in Louisville. “It’s a crescendo. It starts with a few casualties
early on, then there’s the Tet Offensive, then withdrawal. It’s like a big bell
The memorial was built in 1987 and dedicated on November 12 in 1988 by then-
Governor Wallace G. Wilkinson. It cost more than $1 million, of which the State
of Kentucky provided $100,000. The rest of the money came from private donations.
According to Halvatgis, himself a Vietnam veteran, one important goal of the
fund-raising efforts was to establish funding for perpetual care of the monument.
“We didn’t want to go back to people for more money,” he says. “We stated that
this is a one-time request for funding, so make sure your contribution is such
that we can meet the goal—and it worked. We received sufficient funds to build
the memorial to exact specifications and then to establish the trust fund to
For everyone involved, the creation of the memorial was a labor of love.
“We had workers who gave up some of their pay as their personal contribution
to make sure this memorial was built,” Halvatgis says. “The electrician, a Vietnam
vet, wanted the job so bad he underbid it by about $10,000. We even had contributions
from the homeless. Everybody pulled together to make it happen.”
Roberts says the memorial has become a healing place for many veterans. Halvatgis
recalls that when the memorial was first constructed, many Vietnam veterans
visited in the middle of the night because they could not face in the daytime
the stark reality of what it represented.
“I’ve seen people start walking toward the memorial, go halfway up, stop, turn
around, and get back in their cars and leave. They just couldn’t face it.”
For some, the memorial gives them a place to tell others—for the first time—that
they are Vietnam veterans.
“The memorial has unified our veterans,” says Halvatgis. “It is a place where
they can pay their respect and a place where they can find respect.”.
Reunion at the Memorial
by Kathy Witt
Every third weekend in May, Joe Humphrey can be found at the Kentucky Vietnam
As the director of LZ Bluegrass Inc. (formerly the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans
Reunion), Humphrey organizes the group’s annual pilgrimage to the Frankfort
“The first and second LZ gatherings—LZ stands for Landing Zone—were held in
Louisville,” says Humphrey. “For the third we went to Frankfort and we’ve been
there at the Capitol Plaza and the memorial ever since. In May 2001, we’ll do
the 13th gathering.”
Humphrey’s involvement with the Louisville-based group began with a bumper
sticker and a case of the measles.
“The person who founded LZ, Cindy Dumas, worked with my wife, Lisa. I had a
Vietnam veteran bumper sticker on my car and she said something to my wife about
coming to their gathering. My wife was ready to go anywhere since our son had
just had the measles.
“We went to the first gathering, then to the second. Then I went on the board
of directors for the fourth gathering. When the fifth one hit, I got voted in
to run the organization.”
Humphrey says he tries to bring something unique to the annual gathering, which
falls on Armed Forces weekend. Fridays typically consist of a live band performance
at the Capitol Plaza, along with food and souvenir and nonprofit vendors like
the Disabled American Veterans and the Vietnam Veterans of America. Saturdays
mark the opening ceremony and a trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which
overlooks the city and the dome of the Kentucky State Capitol.
Last November, for the first time, LZ Blue-grass Inc. hosted a Veterans Day
gathering at the memorial. Plans have been made for a ceremony this Veterans
Day as well.
For Humphrey, the memorial is a great tribute to those who served in Vietnam
because of what it represents to them and their families. He says, “The Vietnam
vets never actually got what they were due until after Desert Storm. That’s
when people started realizing a different outlook toward veterans in general
and especially toward Vietnam veterans. The memorial gives people a place to
go to have solitude, to reflect back on the good times, to look at a relative’s
name or the name of a person they were with in Vietnam.”
Humphrey’s tour of duty in Vietnam lasted from January 1966 to January 1967.
His childhood friend, Richard Piatt, was killed in action in Vietnam shortly
after Humphrey arrived home. By the time of the war Piatt lived in California.
But his name is now etched into the Kentucky memorial, due to the efforts of
“This was Lisa’s project,” recalls Humphrey, who can now pay respects to Piatt
in Frankfort. “It took her about a year, working with key players and contacting
my friend’s family in California for permission. One day she told me we had
to go to Frankfort to see someone’s name cut into the memorial.
“I got to watch them engrave my friend’s name in the stone,” he says. “He was
a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He was 25 years old.”
Humphrey says the memorial never loses its power to move him or the thousands
of others who visit the site each year, as evidenced by the tributes they leave
like flowers, photos, dog tags, boots, and letters.
“To me, the memorial means dedication,” he says. “The names that are there—these
people were dedicated. They gave their lives because they were dedicated to
their freedom and their families. They were dedicated to America.”
Exhibiting the things left behind
Poems, letters, flowers, beer cans, combat boots, cigarettes, stuffed animals,
and service medals are routinely left at the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial
in Frankfort by the families and friends of Kentuckians who died in the Vietnam
“Some of the poems are real tearjerkers,” sighs Jim Halvatgis, executive director
of the memorial and deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans
Affairs in Louisville. “And the beer cans are left in memorial of a vet by his
The artifacts are currently stored at the Kentucky Military History Museum
in Frankfort, where plans are under way for a permanent exhibit. Construction
of the new exhibit area on the second floor of the museum is scheduled to begin
in early 2001.
“Many things have been left behind at the memorial and very little of it surprises
me,” says Bill Bright, curator of the Kentucky Military History Museum. “What
is touching is when you put together a display and someone recognizes the items
Bright says that the collection cannot be defined within a narrow scope. The
exhibit space, once completed, will put the artifacts in context.
“Different people remember in different ways,” he says. “It truly is a collection
of emotional outpouring.”
Veterans Memorial Info
The Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial is located on Coffee Tree Road across
from the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives. Admission is free.
For more information about the memorial, call Frankfort’s Visitor Center at
(502) 875-8687 or (800) 960-7200 or visit its Web site at www.frankfortky.org.
For a detailed explanation of the design of the memorial, visit Helm Roberts’
Web site at www.helmr.com.
On November 11, Veterans Day, LZ Bluegrass Inc. will hold a commemorative service
at the memorial. The group’s 13th annual gathering will be held on the third
weekend (Armed Forces weekend) of May 2001. For details, call Joe Humphrey at