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Traveling Vietnam War memorial pauses in Valley Center

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, at 9:51 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Oct. 19, 2012, at 6:32 a.m.

View the Moving Wall

The Moving Wall is open 24 hours a day to all visitors at Lions Park, 316 E. Clay in Valley Center.

Signs will direct people to parking lots where shuttle buses will pick up visitors and transport them to and from the park free of charge. Parking around Lions Park will be restricted between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On Monday the buses will run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Saturday’s program starts at 11 a.m. and includes a military aircraft flyover, speakers, flags, the sounding of taps, and the laying of a wreath at the memorial by the family of Wichitan William McGonigle, a Marine killed in action in Vietnam in 1968.

The Moving Wall will stand until 2 p.m. Monday.

Harry McGonigle’s voice held no bitterness when he answered his cellphone this week.

His family has carried the burden of suffering for 44 years now since his son served his country. But McGonigle sounded almost playful.

“Sure, I’ll talk about Billy,” he said. “But you’ll have to bear with me, ’cause I’m a-walkin’ over to take care of my neighbor lady’s kitty-cat.”

His family says McGonigle volunteers often for chores like that. “He’s always looking now for a way to keep himself busy since Grandma died,” was how granddaughter Kelly Meier put it.

Meier today will be keeping McGonigle busy, standing with him beside the half-size replica of the Vietnam War memorial, which Valley Center paid to bring to the area. It was trucked in this week and assembled on Thursday.

On that wall are the names of 58,000 Vietnam War dead, including William McGonigle, age 19, killed in action, 1968, missing in action until his remains were recovered in 2005.

War doesn’t touch as many Americans these days. The United States has fought three wars in the Middle East since Vietnam; lost hundreds of Marines in Lebanon; lost service people in Panama, Grenada and other places; and flown bombing missions over Libya. But unless a family member or friend serves in the all-volunteer military, war to most people is a news item, a photo, a video.

Yet among us live families like the McGonigles, where four generations of one family still carry the burden of defending the country after 44 years. On Saturday, Harry McGonigle and the rest of the family will lay a wreath at the wall in a day of ceremonies there honoring America’s military men and women.

Grace McGonigle never got over losing her boy, Kelly Meier said. Grace refused to believe the words of the military man and the priest who came to the family’s Wichita home in 1968. She refused to believe Billy was dead even after the U.S. military, working now cooperatively with the government of Vietnam, brought Billy’s remains and his ruined eyeglasses with the thick black frames back to the country. There was so little left of Billy’s body by then, Harry said, that the Army buried him with his dead comrades in a common grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Grace McGonigle, Harry’s wife, died in Wichita on Jan. 29, insisting Billy might still be alive out there in the hills of Vietnam. Virginia Beale, Meier’s mother and Billy’s younger sister, said she remembers opening the door to the priest and the man in uniform that day. She was only 14. “It was such a shock,” she said. “And Mom took it real hard.”

The death has hung over the family every day of every year since. “You just couldn’t convince Mom he was really gone,” Beale said, speaking from her home in Colorado. “There were these rumors once in a while, that there were guys who had shown up alive after being confirmed dead, and she hung on to those stories until she died.”

A lot of people do not understand something, Beale said: When a person serves the country, the whole family serves – and suffers a lifelong loss when the person dies.

That loss has haunted Billy McGonigle’s Wichita family now for four generations, Meier said. She’s 36, born eight years after Billy died on that hilltop battle, but she felt the burden, too, in the sadness felt by all who knew him. So when she heard the replica wall was coming to Valley Center, she knew she wanted to see it, with her grandfather beside her.

The wall that honors Billy and so many other people has traveled the country, being moved in sections and reassembled in city after city, so that Americans who can’t travel to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., can see for themselves why that memorial moves people so deeply. The Moving Wall, as it is called, is nearly 253 feet long, made of granite, and is dedicated to veterans of the Vietnam War and honors all U.S. service members. It was scheduled to be assembled in Valley Center on Thursday and to stand until Monday. There is a ceremony on Saturday beginning at 11 a.m.

What Harry McGonigle wanted to tell, he said this week, was that Billy loved his country, and that none of his family’s suffering ever had to be.

“He had all sorts of excuses to stay out of the fighting and come home,” McGonigle said. “His eyesight was bad, he really needed those glasses, and they told him they were gonna send him home. He said no. Then he dropped a shell on his foot, and they told him they’d send him to the rear, out of the fighting. And he said no.”

Decades later, after his remains came home, some of Billy McGonigle’s surviving buddies told the family that Billy was not even scheduled to go on the mission that got him killed. But when another Marine didn’t want to go, they said, Billy volunteered to go in his place.

And so on May 10, 1968, on a mountaintop in Vietnam, in a battle so terrible that the U.S. Marines got overrun, Billy McGonigle, only one year after graduating from South High School in Wichita, died from a sniper’s bullet, and was buried for decades with many other Marine Corps comrades, first by the bombs that the U.S. dropped on the captured hilltop in retaliation, and then by the trees and vegetation that grew.

“He loved his country,” Harry McGonigle said. “He wanted to be a Marine, he wanted to serve in combat, and he and he wanted to stay with the Marines he went through basic training with.

“That’s why he died. He didn’t want to leave his buddies.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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