The sun was setting as I hurried beneath the bare trees. The frozen waters of the Reflecting Pool were a sheet of ice on my left, the shadowed face of the Lincoln Memorial ahead of me drawing closer and on my right-hand side, somewhere amidst the deepening twilight, was the black stone of The Wall, sunk down out of sight. I found a path, crested a small rise, and there it was, a stream of people here in the cold sunset standing and walking quietly along the path beside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
As the Sixties came to a climax, Australians and Americans were fighting a war in Vietnam. There’s a wall in Canberra marked with the names of those who died, and here in the heart of Washington is another wall, a great many more names, thousands and thousands of them, and just as the visitors in Canberra search out certain names and slot poppies in between the slabs bearing the lists, here visitors come to see and touch and make rubbings of the names of those they remember.
I lined up a shot along the eastern wing, the stark column of the Washington Monument catching the final watery, wintry rays of the sun, people walking, making rubbings, standing silently for photographs, or just gazing up at the names. I felt a bit of an intruder here in a sacred American place, but there was that undeniable bond between our two nations. We had fought side by side in Vietnam, and Korea and World War II before that, and again in subsequent combats, including the current war, where we were again helping to share the load.
Vietnam must hold a special place in American hearts, just as that long ago defeat in Turkey rings down the years in Australia, where each year people rise in the early morning to attend a service at sunrise to commemorate a dawn attack that began a legend of a hard battle fought in a distant place for reasons few of the participants could have explained. They went, they did their duty, they did their best, and some of them gave all they had. It is fitting that friends, families, comrades and descendants come here to remember those who never came home, and I was glad that I had come to pay my respects at the end of a very strange feeling Australia Day.
I raised my camera again to take another photograph – I usually take two or three of the same scene – when the young man reached up to the cold black surface of The Wall to touch a name. And my heart.