The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One of the first Vietnam memorials was born of a father’s grief and obsession.

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Victor Westphall was using a backhoe to dig a trench for a water line at his new golf course when the two Marines came to tell him that his son had been killed in Vietnam.

For a second, he thought they might be wrong. His son, also named Victor, was always called by his middle name, David.

But the Marines were correct. First Lt. Victor David Westphall 3d, 28, of Albuquerque, had been killed in a bloody ambush on May 22, 1968, outside Con Thien, South Vietnam. Sixteen other Americans had also been killed.

The elder Westphall, 54, climbed down from his backhoe, and left behind the partially built golf course and the 800-acre development he had planned for the beautiful mountain valley east of Taos.

Something else would go there now.

Three years later, in 1971, Westphall would host the dedication of one of the first major Vietnam veterans memorials in the U.S. — predating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its famous Wall in Washington by a decade.

As filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick recount the epic tragedy of the Vietnam War on public television this month, Victor Westphall’s Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel, as it was first called, has been all but forgotten nationally.

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But when it was built, Americans were still dying in Vietnam, the war was a raw, unhealed wound, and some saw the stark chapel as a protest. It was, its creator later wrote, “an enduring symbol of the tragedy and futility of war.”

The white modernist structure, with spires like a mountain’s peaks, was also born out of one man’s grief and became an obsession for the rest of the elder Westphall’s life. He would be found dead of heart failure in the bathtub of his apartment at its visitors center on July 22, 2003. He was 89. Both he and his wife, Jeanne, who died in 2004, are buried at the site.

After their son’s death, they sold their house nearby and all but five of the 800 acres they had bought for the development. Devastated by the death, Jeanne said she couldn’t live in the area anymore, and moved away, according to the couple’s younger son, Walter Westphall.

Although the project was her idea, “she was basically destroyed for the rest of her life,” he said, and may have partly blamed her husband, a World War II Navy veteran, for their son’s death.

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The elder Westphall, himself a contractor, moved into a camper on the windswept knoll in the highlands of northern New Mexico, and spent his days working on the project and trying to raise money. He dug the foundations for the chapel, hired an architect and a construction company and supervised the work.

He put a hand-lettered, green and white wooden sign out on the local highway that read, “Vietnam Veterans Chapel,” according to old newspaper stories.

And when it was dedicated on May 22, 1971, on the third anniversary of his son’s death, he said it was “a gift to mankind with no strings attached,” according to the old newspaper accounts. “It’s a gift to man, but I don’t know what man will do with it.”

The keynote speaker that day was the 27-year-old national coordinator for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and future secretary of state, John F. Kerry. “There’s no memorial that would mean as much to the men in Vietnam as the one here on this hill,” he said.

Three years earlier, on a sweltering Wednesday evening, Lieut. Westphall and his platoon were searching the rugged terrain east of Con Thien for the North Vietnamese, when they walked into an enemy ambush. Machine gunfire, mortars and grenades decimated the Americans.

Westphall, his radio operator Lance Cpl. Charles Kirkland, and more than a dozen others were killed, according to an account provided by Walter Westphall. The bodies of Westphall, Kirkland and several others had to be left on the battlefield, and were not retrieved until the next morning.

The lieutenant had been struck by gunfire multiple times. When his body was recovered it was considered “nonviewable” for funeral purposes.

Westphall had been in Vietnam about seven months. He had almost been killed once, by a poisonous snake bite. He had graduated from the Marine Corps basic officer school in Quantico, Va., the previous August.

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It was his second hitch in the Marines. He had first served as an enlisted man, and then after college at the University of Montana, marriage and a divorce, he had returned to the Marines as an officer.

He and his younger brother had grown up in Albuquerque, where their father was a developer and home builder. The elder Westphall, a native of Hebron, Wis., also had a doctorate in history, and had been president of the Historical Society of New Mexico. He was known as “Doc.”

In 1964, he purchased a tract of land called Val Verde Ranch, in the Moreno Valley of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, northeast of Albuquerque.

Four years later, and only weeks before his son was killed, a local paper reported that he was turning the tract into a sanctuary, with a nine-hole golf course, two lakes and a mission retreat center.

The lieutenant had visited his parents there before shipping out to Vietnam.

The elder Westphall had just put in the greens for the golf course, and on May 27, 1968, he was digging the water line trench when the Marines appeared with the bad news.

“He was on the tractor and they came up to him,” recalled Walter Westphall, 74, who flew Air Force tankers during the war. “They helped him down from the tractor.”

Now they had to tell Jeanne.

“The two Marines and my father drove up to our house, which was a few hundred yards from where my father was working, and walked into the house and told her,” he said. “She took it real hard. She had a lot of emotional issues, and paranoia and fear and anger, and all kinds of things went on with her, unfortunately.”

Westphall was buried June 10, 1968 in Santa Fe National Cemetery.

His parents “decided very early, within just a few days of learning of my brother’s death, to build a memorial to him and to others from his unit, and all Vietnam veterans really,” Walter Westphall said. “They just resolved that they would build this memorial as their way of coping and remembering, and hopefully changing the world in some small way.”

The elder Westphall hired the Santa Fe architect Ted C. Luna to help with the design, but did much of the actual labor himself, his son said.

He lived in the camper, then in a cabin he built there, and then in the visitor center apartment on the site. His wife was less involved. “She actually developed a fear of living in that area,” Walter Westphall said. She resided, on and off, in Albuquerque 150 miles away, and in Springer, N.M., about 60 miles away. At times her husband joined here there.

“My father basically lived on site, and he would visit her periodically,” he said. “There was a lot of tension between them over that … a lot of sadness and probably some anger toward one another.”

“Maybe at least subconsciously, maybe consciously, I think she maybe blamed my father for my brother’s death,” he said. “She felt he influenced him … I have a feeling that she placed some blame on him for that, which creates a very sad situation, obviously.”

After the chapel was dedicated, the elder Westphall continued to work and live at the site, trying to keep it going, changing its name at one point to the Center for the Advancement of Human Dignity. Financial, administrative and family problems were constant.

“I wish I could have persuaded him to abandon it,” Walter Westphall said. “His mentality was he couldn’t give up. He would die before he gave up.”

An old photograph shows Westphall standing outside his cabin with his St. Bernard dog, Lady. A spire of the chapel rises in the background.

In 1982 the site was turned over to the Disabled American Veterans, according to the memorial’s website. A visitors center was added, along with the apartment, and 25 more acres of land.

The disabled veterans bowed out in 1998. In 2005 the state of New Mexico stepped in and the site became the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park.

In 1994, Westphall, then 80 and using a cane, traveled to Vietnam to find the place where his son had been killed. He took with him earth from the memorial site. Reaching a remote spot by a dirt road near where the ambush occurred, he scattered the New Mexico soil, and gathered some from the site.

When he got home, he spread the Vietnam earth at the memorial and declared the circle complete.

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