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Troubled Waters: KC’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Restored Broken Pump Repaired. Veterans Await Other Promised Upgrades.

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Above image credit: The Kansas City Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain had fallen into disrepair after a water pump failed. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)
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7 minute read

Listen closely for the meaning behind the water that’s finally flowing again at the Kansas City Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain. 

You may hear it in the words of former soldiers. 

They fought, watched friends die in combat, then returned to a nation that had grown so divided over the conflict that it shunned them. 

It’s a sharp pain that still lingers, even now, nearly 50 years later. 

That sentiment informs how offensive the broken fountain near Broadway and W. 42nd Street was to area Vietnam War veterans. 

“The whole idea of the floating water was that it was a memorial to those who returned and not just those who died,” said Art Fillmore, an area attorney and Vietnam veteran. 

Attorney and Vietnam War veteran Art Fillmore.
Art Fillmore, Kansas City attorney, Vietnam veteran and one of the original backers instrumental in establishing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain in Kansas City. (Contributed)

Fillmore was instrumental in building the fountain and the accompanying granite wall inscribed with the names of 451 people from the Kansas City area who died during the Vietnam War. 

“Even if you hate the war, or disrespect the war, you can’t disrespect the warrior,” Fillmore said. “And that is what the whole thing is about.” 

And yet, disrespect is what Fillmore and others felt as the fountain fell into disrepair. 

It was an eerily familiar sentiment, grinding into memories of what they experienced returning from combat as much younger men. 

Concrete around the site is chipping. Some of the lights that illuminate the memorial appear vandalized. The area’s landscaping, once plentiful with plants, trees and shrubs, is barren compared to previous years. 

And until Tuesday, the only water present was pinkish, stagnant, pooled from recent rain. 

“To not get it turned on for us for Memorial Day, that’s just another slap in the face to the veterans,” said David Baker, a retired architect who designed the water feature of the fountain. 

For months, Baker and Fillmore waited for the city to begin repairs. 

COVID-related delays meant that a new pump, ordered in March, only recently arrived, said Chris Cotten, director of the Parks and Recreation Department

It was installed on Tuesday.  

“Everything is taking so much longer to receive,” Cotten said. He said parts that once could be delivered overnight, now take months. 

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain after it was repaired this week.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain after a water pump was repaired this week. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Other improvements are also planned, such as repairing the crumbling capstone atop the granite wall and replacing broken lighting, which needs to be specially ordered, Cotten said. 

Several Vietnam veterans approached Cotten at a recent event honoring veterans of the Korean War and volunteered to help with any labor needed for the grounds. 

Dedicated in the mid-1980s, the entire memorial was deeded back to the city, which is responsible for its upkeep, according to Fillmore, who had served as chairperson of an original foundation that raised funding for the memorial. 

As a fountain within a city park, responsibility for its care falls under the Parks and Recreation Department, which is governed by the five-member volunteer board of commissioners, although only three are currently serving. 

Memorial’s Elaborate Design 

Everything about the memorial is intentional. 

A concrete path winds through the site, intended to allow a veteran to walk slowly, reflecting on their time served. 

A headstone at one end is marked “Goodbye My Friend” for veterans who returned home butt have since died. 

The names inscribed on the wall are flanked by a Service Medal, as a thank you to all who served, and a Purple Heart Medal, for those who returned wounded. 

Names of veterans are etched into the granite wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain in Kansas City.
Names of veterans are etched into the granite wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain in Kansas City. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

But it is the intricate flow of the water that holds a more complicated meaning, designed to move from a higher pool at the south end of the site, flowing downward into two separate ones at the north end. 

“Our involvement in the war in (19)59 was very, very little,” Baker explained. “So, the first pool is very calm.” 

The turbulence in the water begins in the middle of the memorial. It signifies the Tet Offensive of 1968, a dramatic escalation in the fighting by the North Vietnamese, launched on Tet, or the Lunar New Year. 

Tet was supposed to be a time of an informal truce, a ceasefire. 

The scale of the casualties, civilian and military, and the devastation of cities was widely covered by U.S. media. It marked a shift away from earlier support within the general public, a disillusionment that grew over time. 

“Then of course, towards the end, the water splits, representing the split opinion that America had about the soldier and the war,” Baker said. 

The shifting flow of the water is controlled by the pump that needed to be replaced, Baker said. 

Baker completed six years in the Army, including two tours in Vietnam.  

When he returned to the small northeast Missouri town of his youth, he was not welcomed. 

The vitriol against the war and anyone associated with it was so widespread that he didn’t dare admit his service.  

“We could not join VFW or American Legion,” Baker said, remembering that many of the returning service members were told “you’re not a veteran” by those who had fought in earlier wars. 

It’s how the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) was formed, he said, because they were shunned by other organizations. 

A personal memorial was left at the granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain in Kansas City.
A personal memorial was left at the granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain in Kansas City. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

Baker overheard others in the town discuss another returned Vietnam veteran, a friend who had been a grade ahead of him in school. The man had been wounded in the war. 

“The comments, people said that he deserved to be shot because of what he did in Vietnam,” Baker said. 

A motto of sorts of the VVA: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” 

The National Archives list 58,220 American casualties from the Vietnam War, including 627 from Kansas and 1,418 from Missouri. 

As of October 2022, 1,582 Americans were still unaccounted for, with 488 of that number considered “non-recoverable.” 

Memories of those days are fresh for other reasons. 

It’s a pattern that’s repeated, Baker said, like with those returning from Desert Storm in the Mideast, which also saw divided support in the American public. 

Media too often distorts the image of veterans — not only from Vietnam, but more recent wars, Baker said. 

Soldiers who returned from Afghanistan and Iraq too often are assumed to be broken, mentally ill or drug addicted. 

“If you talk to other veterans, they understand,” he said. 

One such man, an Army veteran from more recent times, sat at the memorial on a recent Sunday, surveying the state of the disrepair. 

“There used to be really pretty forsythia bushes back there,” he said, pointing to the edges of the memorial. 

He walked around the grounds, stopping at the wall, looking at two etched names: MORRIS C. WHEELER, RAYMOND L. WHEELER. 

They were cousins, with relatives from the same Kansas City, Kansas, neighborhood where the man said he was raised.  

Records show that Morris Wheeler, a Marine, died in the Kien Hoa province on Jan. 10, 1967. He was 19. 

Raymond Wheeler, part of the Air Force, died in the Khanh Hoa province on Oct. 3, 1966. He was 25. 

“You can see how filthy this thing is starting to get,” the man said, touching the wall near their names. 

He didn’t wish to be identified. 

Vandalism by Skinheads, Generosity by a Local Millionaire  

The granite wall of the Kansas City memorial went up first, dedicated in December 1985. 

The wall is similar, although far smaller, than the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C.  

But the vision was always broader, for a fountain. The lack of completion troubled Fillmore. 

He began to have dreams of voices. They were the relatives of the people whose names were inscribed on the wall. 

“It was very haunting,” Fillmore said. “It would be like a brother, a sister or a friend all speaking to me. I felt an incredible responsibility to get that next portion finished.” 

More money was needed as the cost of the wall had absorbed what had been raised. 

Fate intervened.  

A group of skinheads had been hanging out around Westport one night. Security chased them from that area and the group began to walk south on Broadway, winding up at the wall. 

They took grease paint pens and drew swastikas and anti-American slogans across the wall, Fillmore said. The sun baked the slurs into the porous stone. The defacement drew national media. 

By chance, the late Del Dunmire drove by as workers were trying to remove the paint. 

Dumire, who died in 2016 at 82, was known for being as eccentric as he was generous. 

He met with Fillmore and told him that before he made his money in aviation parts, he’d been in the Air Force. 

But Dunmire also acknowledged he had disgraced the uniform by robbing a bank after losing money in a poker game. 

“He told me, ‘Whatever it costs, I’ll pay for it,’” Fillmore said. 

Dunmire donated more than $250,000, enough to complete the memorial and set aside some funding that was used for the initial upkeep, Fillmore said. 

A plaque at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain honors the generosity of Kansas Citians.
A plaque at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fountain honors the generosity of Kansas Citians. (Mary Sanchez | Flatland)

The passage of time, now nearly 40 years, ensured that more expensive repairs were inevitable. 

But now, there are far fewer Vietnam veterans alive. 

As they age, many are less mobile, leading to reduced participation in the twice-a-year ceremonies at the site for Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in early November. 

Fillmore is originally from St. Louis. 

Besides his work with the memorial, he’s helped veterans by establishing the Heart of America Stand Down in 1992 and co-founded a 24-acre campus for permanent housing, St. Michael’s Veterans Center. 

He enlisted in 1968, right after college, knowing that his father had political connections that could have gotten him out of serving. 

But Fillmore realized that if he didn’t go to Vietnam, someone else far less privileged would be sent. 

He told his father that he’d take his chances. 

He spent a little over a year in Vietnam and then became a nuclear weapons commander in Europe.  

“I was a forward observer for an infantry company,” Fillmore said. “During a firefight, I would call in airstrikes of artillery and gunships… I lost friends every day over there.” 

Healing Words

“Water, like time, has the power to cleanse and heal. This memorial fountain stands as a symbol of that healing from the devastating division caused by the Vietnam War. The fountain’s pools represent the country’s growing involvement in the war, culminating in two pools symbolic of the divided opinions at the time. 

Americans took distinct and differing stands on the war, and caught in the middle were the thousands of men and women from the Kansas City area who served in Vietnam, hundreds of whom were killed or are missing and unaccounted for. 

This memorial is to honor them and bring us all together in tribute to their dedication and bravery. 

The park is for all of Kansas City to enjoy and to remember. For only by remembering, can we assure that it never happens again.” 

_The thoughts of Vietnam Veteran Art Fillmore are enshrined on a plaque at the site of the Kansas City Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Fountain. 

Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS/Flatland. 


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One thought on “Troubled Waters: KC’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Restored

  1. Having had an older brother who served in the Vietnam War, even at 17, I was appalled by the way the troops were vilified upon their return. I hate war, but I will ALWAYS honor and respect those who answer our country’s call to serve and protect. Thank you all for answering the call. Is there a specific fund to contribute to for the maintenance and upkeep of this memorial?

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