Walls & Bridges
The Moving Wall, a portable replica of the Vietnam
memorial in Washington, is one veteran's tribute
to the sacrifices made by his fallen comrades.
By Michael Oricchio, staff writer
San Jose Mercury News: July 16, 1990
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Everything seemed to come together for San Jose native
John Devitt when he attended the dedication of the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. nearly eight years
Not until then did the former Army helicopter door gunner
realize that anyone wanted to recognize the sacrifices
made by more than 58,000 of his dead brothers in arms.
Not until then did the recurring problems he'd been dealing
with since serving in Vietnam from '67 to '69 cease.
For years he had suffered from violent temper flares,
the sweats, bad dreams and the boredom of going from
an intense, adrenaline-pumping existence to normal workaday
"That's why I wanted to do something. People really
did care and I wanted to let other vets know they care," says
the 41-year-old Devitt. "I wanted to capture that
spirit I felt in Washington, D.C. and sort of spread
it around and share it with people who couldn't get
To do that, he got together with a couple of friends
in January 1983 and spent 22 months and about $28,000
in donations building the Moving Wall, his original,
aptly named half-scale plexiglas replica of the memorial
These days, there are two Moving Walls that tour around
the country during the year.
A third serves as backup in case there's a booking problem.
Now, however, that third replica is on display at San
Jose's Municipal Rose Garden, at the corner of Dana
and Naglee avenues, until its two-week appearance there
Gone for almost a year, the Moving Wall has returned
to the city where both creator and creation were born.
"After having traveled all over the country with
it," says Devitt, "it's good to bring it home
and let people know it's still going on."
Since the original Moving Wall made its first appearance
in Tyler, Texas, it and its two counterparts have been
refurbished. Currently, each measures 250 feet long,
4 feet tall at each end and six feet tall in the center.
Each is made of aluminum with the 58,175 names of the
American dead in Vietnam silk-screened upon black panels,
which are supported by metal braces driven into the
ground. All told, these sheetmetal replicas cost about
$60,000 each, the money raised through donations.
But the emotional price that came with building them
was probably much higher.
"It was pretty hard dealing with it on a daily level
- just all those names," says Devitt.
"It didn't seem like we were ever going to finish.
There were times when I wanted to just get into my truck
and leave," he adds. "I never left. I just
said, 'Let's go for it.' And that meant stop when you
finish or die trying."
When he started, Devitt thought the original replica
would just be a weekend project. Shortly after he started,
however, he decided to give up his maintenance work
at a half-dozen San Francisco apartment buildings and
devote all of his time to the model.
Eventually Devitt, who is single, could no longer afford
his Mission District apartment and took to sleeping
in his car or at the homes of friends.
"He's so dedicated to those 58,000-plus fellows
on that wall. That's been his life," says his 68-year-old
father, Mike Devitt, a former arson investigator for
the San Jose Fire Department.
"It's like an artist," adds his dad, who now
lives in Capitola. "How can I put it? Like an artist."
At first glance, his son the artist - who graduated from
James L:ick High School in 1966 - looks like a freeze-frame
still in someone's old photo album of the Sizzlin' '60s.
A black baseball cap sits atop his long, muddy brown
hair flecked with gray, which hangs halfway down his
back in a ponytail. A splotchy beard hides half his
face, while big black plastic aviator-style glasses
cover the rest.
His tall, lanky frame is clothed in the uniform of the
day: black Vietnam vets t-shirt with an American bald
eagle on it, faded Levi's and black sneakers. He wears
an AMVETS ring given to him at an appearance and three
bracelets with the names of MIAs etched on them.
"Underneath that beard and that long hair and those
dark glasses, he's a hell of a good guy," says
his father. "It makes me proud, not just as a father
but as an American."
Apparently, others agree. As his project developed, Devitt
found support from the Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd.,
the San Jose-area group to which he belongs. Eventually
the memorial replicas became the primary project of
that group, which has grown nationally since it was
formed in January 1982.
"John, he's unique. He sees the wall as his Holy
Grail. I guess that sort of colors his vision," says
Bill Dupras, 45, who acts as president of the veterans
group. "It's very all-consuming for him. It's almost
Devitt also had a lot of help from two other local Vietnam
vets who've stuck by him since the beginning.
Longtime pal, Gerry Haver, a Mountain View tree trimmer
who served on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin,
was one of the first people to be inspired by Devitt's
"John and I were sitting around talking, and he
mentioned that he wanted to get some project going," says
the 47-year-old Haver, who threw in $2,000 of his savings
along with the $500 or so Devitt had already put in
the pot. It was all they had at the time.
"Then when he decided how big one side was going
to be, I said, 'Oh, what have we gotten ourselves into?' " he
adds with a laugh.
The pair took the idea to Norris Shears, another Navy
vet who owns the Screentique silk-screening shop in
south-central San Jose (by michael gill). Eventually that became their
base of operations.
"I didn't know what to think. It was a hell of a
project to take on," says the 47-year-old Shears. "Hell,
I don't say no to anything."
In September 1983, Devitt and company went to the San
Jose City Council for an endorsement, which they felt
would help them raise more money for the model. Instead,
the council gave them $16,000. As payback, of sorts,
Devitt hopes to build a fourth, permanent model and
a small museum in a city park.
After the original project was finished, and the demand
for appearances grew, Devitt built a second model in
1986 and then the third in 1989.
The Moving Walls each visit 22 to 28 cities around the
United States annually. Devitt says 75,000 to 100,000
people come out to the memorials during their weeklong
appearances at each spot. There's a certain similarity
to what happens in each city.
"Basically it's what happens at the wall in Washington,
D.C.," he says. "You just see the whole emotional
spectrum played out."
Devitt travels by truck with one of the memorials - in
fact, he recently returned from an appearance in Concord,
N.H. - while someone else travels with the other. The
third is used as they need it.
He doesn't pull down a salary, his traveling expenses
and lodging are provided by the organizations that bring
the Moving Wall to town. Those sponsors also pay a $2,500
fee that goes for maintenance and insurance for the
structures and a 30 cents-a-mile transportation charge.
No admission is charged at the display sites.
Still, there's a big payback for Devitt.
"A lot of these plaques here are from the places
I've gone, organizations that have had the wall. It's
just their way of saying thanks," he says, looking
around the cramped, tiny Vietnam Combat Veterans, Ltd.
Office in San Jose. The walls are jammed with citations,
awards and photos.
"It's a real rewarding thing to be doing," he
says. "It brings people together. People for the
war. People against the war. It has a lasting effect."