Proposal for Vietnam War commemoration complex dies
ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) — The Vietnam War started small, grew big and then wound down, dying like a guttering candle.
The national memorial for that war is a wall that starts low, grows tall in the middle, then shortens, ending as low as it began.
Fire Base Eagle, a local group that proposed to commemorate the war with a complex that included a replica field base and a history center, started small, grew in ambition, then shrank its plans until the group dissolving at the end of last year, so that the arc of its existence mimicked that of the war and of the wall — a half-sized replica of which the group brought here as a sideline that ended up being its biggest success.
“It’s good comparison,” said Fire Base Eagle founder and president George Montgomery, 70, an Altoona native and Greenwood resident who served in the Army infantry in combat in Vietnam. “Big hope at the beginning, some successes, then things got more difficult and things changed, then finally, we realized we probably can’t do it.”
A unique idea
It began around 1987, when Montgomery went into an office of Sky Bros., where he worked, and spoke to executive Neil Port of his ambition to tell the story of Vietnam through the experiences of regular soldiers like himself by recreating a fire base — the ubiquitous artillery encampments set up by U.S. forces in that country to support the work of ground troops on patrol.
Port arranged for Montgomery to meet some prominent local businessmen, to whom he showed some “crude drawings,” which led to an exhibit at the old Keystone Country Festival at Lakemont Park that fall, according to Montgomery.
The exhibit didn’t last long because the second visitor, possibly a World War II veteran, disparaged it, asking, “Why would they want to do that for those guys?”
Montgomery was offended and left, and his idea lay dormant.
“I had a bad temper then,” he said.
His snit was reinforced by a friend and fellow Vietnam veteran who told Montgomery: “Nobody cares. Nobody wants to know.”
But then in 1993, Montgomery spoke in Breezewood at a military-themed car show at the request of a Bedford County veterans group.
The reaction surprised and encouraged him.
“People came up and started saying, ‘I didn’t know it was like that,’” he said.
Their goodwill rekindled his ambition, so to solidify his commitment to his own cause, on the urging of his wife, he applied to the Internal Revenue Service to create a non-profit eligible to receive tax-deductible donations, an application that required $3,500 of his own money and the creation of a board, with him as founder and president and Paul Johnson of Altoona as vice president.
He called the organization Fire Base Eagle, the name he hoped to apply to the replica artillery base that would be the centerpiece of the project.
Planning ensued, then IRS approval, then a proposal to the Altoona City Authority to use the site of the former Pottsgrove Reservoir in Greenwood, in hopes of taking advantage of what was rumored to be an interchange at Kettle Street for the new alignment of Route 220 — now I-99.
The ground was woodsy and primitive and there weren’t many houses nearby, but a heritage travel expert he took to the site nixed it, knowing that the Kettle interchange would never be built.
In 1998, the group held a promotional event, hosting speakers and bringing in a pair of Cobra gunships to Lakemont Park.
That same year, Fire Base Eagle went public in the news, granting an interview to the Mirror.
Securing The Wall
The next year, Johnson, who was vice president of a veterans advisory group for his employer, Bell Atlantic, secured the half-size replica of the Vietnam War memorial — a “traveling” wall — for a short visit to Altoona.
That turned into a permanent installation at Van Zandt VA Medical Center, after the group learned that the organization that owned the exhibit planned to retire it and replace it with a newer version.
Getting the wall here for good required raising $50,000 quickly and obtaining permission from Van Zandt, which agreed to pay for the necessary site work and construction of a small visitor’s center nearby to house a few Vietnam War artifacts.
“The Wall that Heals” turned out to be the group’s “major accomplishment,” said Donna Gority, former Blair County commissioner and wife of John Gority, who joined the board when he met Montgomery at a ceremony celebrating the wall installation, and who was one of four board members at the end last year, along with Montgomery, Johnson and Stan Snyder, who joined in 1998.
All four were members of the 1966 graduating class at Altoona Area High School, though none knew any of the others then, Montgomery said.
In 1999, FBE officials met with Peter Barton, former head of the Railroaders Memorial Museum, who agreed to work with them, but had to back out because he took a job in New England — but not before he put them in touch with Don Traub, an exhibit design consultant from Pittsburgh.
Traub put together a team of consultants from all over the country, including an archivist from Washington, D.C., a museum director from Kansas, a strategic design consultant and an educational planning consultant from Pittsburgh and an oral history professor and folklorist from Buffalo.
That team was encouraging, telling members that their idea was unique because it would tell the story from the ground combat point of view, Montgomery said.
Also in 1999, the group made a presentation to City Council.
That led to an agreement for the group to site the project at Westfall Park and a $10,000 allocation from the city for a survey there.
The following year, the project grew from regional to national in scope.
It was a shift that may have been a critical error.
Initially, the group was planning the replica fire base, a 12,000 square-foot history building with exhibit areas, a memorial garden and a small parade ground — a complex that might have cost about $5 million.
After an architect got involved and there were discussions with the consultant team, the group began envisioning a 65,000 square-foot history center with a Huey helicopter hanging from the ceiling and a couple of manikins purporting to jump from it; with exhibit construction areas, archives, temperature-controlled areas, an equipment room, an auditorium and a cafe; along with, outdoors, a POW camp, a small tunnel complex, a trail with information stations along the way, a mock village, and — for a while — a contact building that would create sensations that mocked the feel of nearby artillery and bullets whizzing by. It was a project that might have cost about $35 million.
Executing such a grandiose scheme would justify asking Congress to designate the site the National Vietnam War History Center, and would enable the group to obtain traveling exhibits from the Smithsonian, Montgomery said.
The board voted on the proposed enlargement, and just about agreed to do it — except Montgomery.
“I had that old gut feeling,” he said. “Not the idea that I didn’t want it to be that big, but maybe it should be done over time.”
In 2001, the group put on a show of photographs taken by combat photographers who’d been killed in Vietnam, a “world-class exhibit,” intended to be a major fundraiser as well as a promotion for the proposed complex, as it would get people thinking about the history of the war, But the exhibit cost $10,000 and the effort netted only $4,000 for the group. The timing was unfortunate, as the 9/11 attacks had occurred just a couple of months previous and people were not only afraid to travel, but were shifting their attention from a war that ended in 1975 to one of uncertain dimensions that had just begun.
It was obvious that people were not as receptive as they had been to the group’s message, Montgomery said.
“Things were slipping away,” he said.
It seemed as if Fire Base Eagle had passed its propitious moment.
Also around this time, the Westfall opportunity began to evaporate because of difficulties working around power lines there, concerns that the site wouldn’t be easily visible and that traffic to the site would violate the peace of nearby residential neighborhoods.
Sometime after 2001, when the Westfall plans went away altogether, there were discussions about putting the complex on Brush Mountain, near the present location of Logan Town Centre, and a meeting took place at the office of State Sen. Robert Jubelirer, who said it probably wouldn’t be that difficult to obtain $3 million for the project — a remark that, if the group hadn’t already committed to the larger-scope project, could have had a defining influence, according to Montgomery.
Three million dollars would have virtually locked in the original small, $5 million project, because it was more than half the necessary money, and such a commitment would have made it easier to raise the rest, given the faith it would have inspired in potential donors.
But it was hardly enough to generate such faith in the much bigger project the group was planning then.
Still, the members remained engaged, receiving a $10,000 grant through Jubelirer and a pair of $5,000 grants through State Rep. Rick Geist, along with $6,000 generated by motorcycle runs.
That money went toward website development, funding a feasibility study, an economic impact study and a marketing study, which together comprised a business plan, completed in 2007.
It was during this time, between 2002 and 2008, that the group became involved with the Heinz Corp., as a result of a chance meeting with a company executive at a motorcycle event in Pittsburgh.
There followed talks with Heinz officials and a suggestion that Fire Base Eagle consider shifting its project to Pittsburgh — a suggestion that members found disconcerting.
The executive was clearly “a shaker and mover,” unlike Montgomery and his blue collar friends, who had been focused locally and who were trying to tell the story of their blue collar experiences in a war largely fought by people like themselves.
Montgomery’s interactions with the executive helped illuminate the disadvantage of coming from such a background in the context in which he and his friends now found themselves.
Ultimately, the group fell out of touch with the executive because it was hard for Montgomery — working man that he was — to get in touch with the man, who generally was only available at 6:30 a.m.
During the same period, the woman who performed the funding feasibility study and the man who created the business plan further illuminated that blue collar disadvantage, while at the same time nudging the group back toward its smaller, more manageable, cheaper regional plan. From talking to them, group members learned how influential types often brought their own chunks of funding when they joined non-profit boards and they came to realize that the more modest version of the project would be more amenable to them as workingmen.
There was also encouragement to be more flexible, so that when an opportunity arose, the members could adjust and take advantage — advice that might have been timely when Jubelirer indicated the possible availability of $3 million.
Between 2008 and 2012, the group had its last best chance at success when, upon the suggestion of a local businessman, it sought a lease for 55 acres of fields and woods owned by the state behind the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home as a site for the smaller project.
The commandant of the home was enthusiastic, the three state lawmakers connected with this area were supportive and the adjutant general in charge of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs was “all for it,” Montgomery said.
The proposal went as far as talks with an attorney to set up the long-term lease with a nominal payment.
But then, the Democratic regime of Gov. Ed Rendell gave way to the Republican regime of Tom Corbett, and things changed.
At first, the group was merely puzzled because the state ceased communicating with it about the plans.
Eventually, the members learned that the Department of General Services was demanding that they buy the land, and at full market value, at a cost of several million dollars, Montgomery said.
The state’s “excuse” for the change in approach was that Fire Base Eagle’s complex would be redundant with the Vietnam exhibit that was part of the U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center at the Carlisle Barracks.
That was nonsense, because the Carlisle exhibit was just one small part of a whole that didn’t focus on Vietnam, according to Montgomery.
“I was just devastated,” Montgomery said. “Four years of effort.”
The defeat depressed him for a year, he said.
Between 2013 and 2017, the group held a fundraiser called “A Night of Nostalgia,” involving imitations of old-time comedians, held in conjunction with another local military group.
It grossed $11,000, but expenses were $9,000, so the groups split a pittance.
“We didn’t lose money, but we didn’t do what we set out to do,” Montgomery said.
During this period, the group made a presentation at Old Bedford Village in hopes of obtaining ground there for the complex.
The members put together and submitted a plan, as it was invited to do, Montgomery said.
There was no response, and when Montgomery inquired months later, he was told the plans had never been received.
He took that to mean the Village was simply not interested.
In 2017, still looking for land, the group located a 26-acre former farm site in Tipton, next to the Little Juniata River.
To begin raising the necessary $100,000 to buy it, the group organized a one-man show at the Mishler Theatre by a Vietnam veteran who’d been a combat photographer.
After expenses, the group cleared only $4,100.
‘We had run our course’
At that point, which was about a year ago, Montgomery felt it was time to surrender.
“My gut feeling was we were not going to be able to go further,” he said. “We had run our course.”
“There was not enough interest in it anymore from the community,” said John Gority. Ultimately, none of the wealthy people here stepped up, he added.
The group raised about $200,000 altogether, Montgomery guessed.
When a local accounting firm did the final Form 990 report to the IRS, there was nothing left, except for $4,900, which went to reimburse Montgomery for some of a $7,500 no-interest loan he’d made to the organization 11 years ago, he said.
Expenses included $20,000 for the business plan, $17,000 for the funding feasibility study, $5,000 each for the economic impact and marketing studies, a total of $80,000 for the Wall project; $8,000 for the survey at Westfall, about $1,000 a year for a couple years for construction and maintenance of a website and some money for van rentals.
None of the officers got anything for themselves, Montgomery said.
The museum’s slogan was to “Inform, Educate and Honor.”
It would have presented the “sights, sounds and smells” of the war, Johnson said.
It would also have been an antidote to the idea that the service members who fought in Vietnam were “losers,” Montgomery said.
Ultimately, the nation’s discomfort with the war was the reason the group couldn’t get the project done, according to Snyder.
“The vision still goes on,” Johnson said. ”(Maybe) someone out there can (still) believe in it.”
The idea was “noble,” according to Port.
“A yeoman’s effort,” Donna Gority said.
“At my end days, I’m not going to say, ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda,’” Montgomery said. “I tried.”
Information from: Altoona Mirror, http://www.altoonamirror.com