New London Veterans Memorial makes another stride
By John Faucher
Grey skies threatened rain as winds from the east gusted around 20 miles per hour.
Vietnam Veteran John Bekkers, US Army 25th Aviation Company, never left that same slab of concrete sidewalk for over an hour as he watched the eagle land in Taft Veteran’s Park on Wednesday, Sept. 28.
Glazing in his eyes reflected openings in the clouds over the future New London Veterans Memorial site. The American Flag danced an eastward breeze with a promise of blue skies over the building tops of downtown New London.
It was delivery day.
Bekkers and his family donated a 620 pound bronze sculpted eagle with a 6-foot-4 wingspan to be placed on top of the existing memorial in the park.
The eagle took nearly six months to make.
“Different times when Bev and I came through here I could just picture that up there,” said Bekkers, as the riggings were applied to the eagle.
Jim Curns was the crane operator and Greg Mathewson and Brenda Huse from Mathewson Monuments helped engineer the delicate move. They completed the prep work on previous days secured the eagle to the existing monument last Wednesday.
When finished, the future New London Veterans Memorial will be a tribute to all veterans of the United States Armed Forces, and it is happening sooner than expected.
The project is over a year ahead of schedule and good things keep happening.
“It’s just something that I and a few others want to see up before it’s too late,” said Bekkers.
“This whole memorial is finally becoming a reality. Words just can’t explain it.”
Bekkers believes in miracles, and perhaps there are some of those involved in the memorial. Bekkers feels there have been many in his life. He is a man of faith, thankful for his time and the people who have helped shape his memories along the way.
Bekkers recalled some of the good people he met in the service, and he still reflects on his experiences in Vietnam. Some are still vivid in his mind as if he were 22 years old, only 55 years later.
He remembers a Capt. Van who eventually was promoted to major.
“My captain was the type of person you could never forget. You could talk to him and you would leave the conversation feeling like a better person,” said Bekkers.
One such time during his service Bekkers was feeling a bit skeptical and reserved about the way government bureaucracies can operate.
“I could have went into the woods and bit a skunk to get the sour taste out of my mouth,” said Bekkers.
One time, Capt. Van called him in to talk about re-enlisting. “At the time he knew to back off on the subject,” said Bekkers.
Over time, Van continued talking with Bekkers and eventually told him about the “intent to re-enlist form.”
“We talked and he knew I enjoyed aviation,” said Bekkers. This ultimately led him to re-enlist.
When Bekkers originally signed up to go into service through the 120-day program the draft numbers were close to him and he knew if he signed up on his own, he could possibly pick his field of interest.
Bekkers always had an interest in flying things.
“I loved aviation ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” said Bekkers.
He built many models of planes as a youngster. “Those were the days when they were made out of balsa wood and tissue paper,” said Bekkers.
In 1959 when he thought about enlisting, the Army was the only branch of military that had an aviation program in the high school.
He eventually found himself at Ft. Polk Louisiana in a rigorous basic training program. From there he went to aviation maintenance school in Virginia, where he graduated in the top of his class.
Then Bekkers went to Ft. Sill Texas and joined up with the 140th where he made flight engineer on a Chinook twin-engine helicopter and went to Vietnam.
Bekkers also flew the Huey helicopter from 1967-68 in Vietnam. He logged over 3,200 hours of flight in the Huey.
“We started out with the model H, and then we went to the model D, which had 200 more horsepower. That helped us get off the ground faster,” said Bekkers.
Flying in and out of mountaintop landing zones, jungle landings, and the various weather conditions of Southeast Asia posed all kinds of challenges for pilots in Vietnam, especially when they came under fire.
“Once in a while we got what they call a ‘gravy run’ which was a Chaplin run. You knew they were a Chaplin because they wore a cross on their uniform. You didn’t know what religion they were, just that they were a Chaplin,” said Bekkers.
“Over there I did learn we all have a job to do, we’re all aiming for the same place, but we just have different ways to get there.”
Bekkers stood with a fixed gaze on the monument as Curns lowered the eagle toward the obelisk. Mathewson and Hues stood on scaffolding as they reached to the sky attempting to guide the heavy bird into its predrilled mounting holes.
The bird fit perfectly.
Bekkers’s right hand signaled a ‘thumbs up’ as he smiled and shouted, “Hey! Safe landing.” He and others who by now had assembled to watch began clapping.
Bekkers’s eyes again started to glaze.
“If you only knew how good it feels to see it finally go up,” said Bekkers.
The New London Veterans Memorial is now another step closer towards completion.
After securing the sculpture, Mathewson climbed down the scaffolding and offered his extended hand to Bekkers. As they shook hands, both men looked up at the bird, now back lit by blue skies.
“We had a good landing John,” said Mathewson. “It’s a beautiful feature up there.”