Saturday, June 6, 2015

Cdr. David Wheat Memorial Unveiled to Standing Ovation, Cheers and Tears

The statue before unveiling.
Friday afternoon more than 500 people gathered in the Commemorative Air Force Museum for a ceremony in which the newly completed statue of Navy Commander David Wheat was unveiled. Wheat is a Duluth native who sent seven years and four months imprisoned at the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp after being shot down in October 1965 during the Vietnam War.

The ceremony opened with the national anthem. After veteran Tony Guerra welcomed everyone he introduced John Marshall, chair of the committee that spearheaded this project. "What a wonderful turnout," Marshall said, thanking the long list of people and groups who made this possible. He then introduced Mayor Don Ness who made a mayoral proclamation declaring June 5 Commander Wheat Day. Ness considered it a privilege to honor a hometown hero and national hero who is the embodiment of courage, perseverance, and dedication to duty, selfless service and sacrifice. "We'll never forget those who so honored our nation."

Former Mayor Ben Boo added a special touch to the ceremony.
Ben Boo, who had been mayor when David Wheat returned from Vietnam so long ago, then took the podium. He shared how the young Wheat approached him for employment, and when being interviewed said, "My previous occupation lasted seven years and was not very satisfying."

The former mayor commented on how in previous wars there were parades for veterans who came home, but in this war there was only silence. He then expressed gratitude for all Vietnam veterans.

John Marshall thanked more people including the artist Tim Cleary who created the piece. The monument itself remained shrouded in a naval parachute for the duration of the ceremony until the end when it would be unveiled. Marshall said the contractors who brought it into the building the night before and covered it were themselves moved by it, and were grateful to be a part of the it.

Cleary spoke briefly and then another former POW was introduced, Gary Guggenberg, who was himself captive from 1969-1972.

A longer speech was given by Dr. James R. Tuorila, a licensed psychologist who learned about the life of POWs by listening to their stories. The theme of his doctoral dissertation was "Humanity in the Face of Inhumanity: The POWs Search For Meaning Through Suffering." His research showed him that there seemed to be three common denominators amongst those who survived the exceptionally harsh treatment as POWs in WW2 on the Asian front. 1. Having grown up through the depression they were made tougher and learned how to stay strong on less food.  2. Belief in God.  3. The conviction that soneone has to survive in order to tell the stories of what happened, what people are capable of doing to other human beings.

Dr. Tuorilla closed with a Mark Twain quote. "The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why."

One of the speakers shared another thought and gave everyone a challenge. When you are in confinement like David Wheat was, one day is like a thousand years, which means his 88 months of captivity was like two million, six hundred and forty thousand years. It was suggested that we find a place with no electricity, no furniture, no radio, no internet, no phone, no rug or comfort of any kind and spend one hour in that situation.

Other speakers included Brad Bennett, another Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, who talked about a trip the Bennetts and Wheats took to Vietnam 18 months ago during which he brought up the local veterans' desire to fund this monument. Bennett also introduced the Vietnamese couple who funded their trip.

The statue, in the studio at UWS before being mounted.
A pair of singers, John & Andy, then performed one of David's favorite songs, "Homeward Bound." It was beautiful and in this context touched everyone in the room.

Cdr. Wheat then took the podium he shared briefly some of his experience and the lifelong impact it has had on him. He had been in alone in a cell the first nine months there, and said that "after six months we felt that qualified as being a POW. We said, 'O.K., let's quit. Let's go home.' But it wasn't a game."

One of the things that most touched me when I interviewed him a few weeks ago was the man's sense of dignity. During his remarks he stated, "We POWs had a code to live by. That was, to return with honor, and I believe we did."

Today's Duluth News Tribune placed the story on the front page above the fold. I have included a few photos here, but be sure to check out those on the DNT website here.

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