WILDWOOD — What began as a $20 beef and beer one cold February day turned into a successful fundraising campaign that will come to fruition on Memorial Day weekend as a permanent replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is unveiled.
The replica, under construction at Columbus Park in Wildwood, will be about half the size and a slightly different shape than the original monument in Washington, D.C., but the emotions it is likely to stir will be the same.
"I was in Vietnam," Vince DePrinzio said Wednesday morning as he kept watch of the wall's construction. "But they're the ones that died for our country. It represents not only (Vietnam veterans), but the veterans that died in all wars."
A traveling version of the memorial, known as The Wall That Heals, came to Wildwood in July 2008. Greg Mazzotta, then president of the island's Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 955, led the effort to bring the replica here.
When it was announced, Mazzotta, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, told The Press, "It means a lot to me. I have a lot of good friends who died."
As for the memorial in Washington, D.C., he became emotional when speaking about it, saying simply, "When you see that one ... I can't talk about it."
The traveling version was so well received that Mazzotta then urged local veterans to bring a permanent memorial to the city, but he died in September 2008 before his goal could be achieved.
But DePrinzio, his cousin, and his fellow veterans continued to pursue Mazzotta's dream. Since that first beef and beer, the memorial effort has managed to collect $123,000, and on May 29, the wall will be presented to the public.
DePrinzio, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, is known to locals for always having something to say, but he will not take on the emcee duties that day.
"It will be very emotional," he said.
On Wednesday morning, construction continued as crews readied the memorial's concrete base for the installation of the black granite panels bearing the names of more than 58,000 men and women.
Former Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. was among those working. His company, E. Troiano & Sons, has offered its services as general contractor and concrete supplier.
"I do this in memory of my father," Troiano said, "and all those who served."
His father was a merchant marine.
"These guys were treated terribly when they came back. This is my way of thanking everyone," he said of Vietnam veterans.
Troiano was not alone in donating his services. The memorial was built in Columbus Park after the city dedicated it for that purpose with the support of the Sons of Italy. Members of Carpenters Locals 1743 and 623 donated their time for the construction, along with companies such as Bayshore Rebar Inc. and others, and each of the 74 granite panels has a sponsor.
Troiano credited the community with supporting the wall's construction.
"This was built without any federal, state or city money," DePrinzio said.
The replica, which will take about six weeks to build, will measure about 250 feet long and 5 feet, 5 inches high at its highest point.
DePrinzio and Troiano were confident it will be ready for its May 29 unveiling.
The date also happens to mark DePrinzio's 64th birthday.
"This will be one hell of a birthday party," DePrinzio said.
If you go
Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 955 and American Legion Post 184 will unveil the Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Wall at noon Saturday, May 29, at Columbus Park, located at Burk and Ocean avenues in Wildwood. A free Celebration of Heroes Festival will take place at Fox Park, directly across from the Wildwoods Convention Center, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. the same day. Anyone wishing to contribute to the costs of erecting and maintaining the memorial may send donations to Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 955, P.O. Box 481, Wildwood, NJ 08260.
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