The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/columns/2010-05-21/1031076/

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, May 21, 2010, Columns

The Vietnam Memorial Garden appears suddenly alongside the highway at a sharp bend in the hills east of Mineral Wells. The first thing you see is a guppy-shaped Huey helicopter silently hovering over a manicured lawn.

Called the "Helicopter War," Vietnam saw an expanded role for the rotor-driven aircraft in combat, and the Huey was its most famous participant. Having the retired UH-1D helicopter as the centerpiece of the park just a short distance from the front gate of the former Fort Wolters, where 95% of helicopter pilots trained, "connects the park to the storyline," says Jim Messinger, a member of the volunteer organization that maintains the site.

The organization was created in 1998 by former Army helicopter pilots. The group's ultimate goal is to build the National Vietnam War Museum at the site. When it opens, the museum will serve as an educational facility and memorial. "There is no other national venue dedicated exclusively to the Vietnam War," Messinger says.

The roadside park is a wonderful rest area for weary travelers and a somber reminder of the servicemen and -women who gave their lives in Southeast Asia. Slicing the hillside like a giant wedge is a 300-foot-long replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The 58,260 names in white cascade down the shiny black aluminum surface like water.

A tranquil garden with two circular labyrinthine paths anchors one end of the park. Planted with native flowers, the Meditation Garden attracts a showcase of butterflies and birds.

Between the two memorials is a replica of the Camp Holloway Memorial Wall originally built near Pleiku, Vietnam. Charles E. Holloway was assigned to a unit flying the double-rotor helicopters called the "Flying Banana" when he was killed in 1962. The base was one of the first named U.S. installations in Vietnam. The original wall honored the fallen comrades of the 52nd Combat Aviation Battalion.

The location of the memorial park near the former military post is a fitting tribute to the thousands of soldiers who once served there. Between 1956 and 1973, Fort Wolters outside of Mineral Wells was the primary helicopter training base for the U.S. Army. At its peak, the base had 1,200 helicopters, and the unique whomp-whomp of the Fort Worth-built Huey's rotor was a familiar sound in North Texas. Today, Fort Wolters is a privately owned industrial park.

The Vietnam Memorial Garden is about 1.5 miles east of Mineral Wells on U.S. 180 and is open for free from dawn to dusk. For more information, go to www.nationalvnwarmuseum.org.

Across the highway from the park is Clark Gardens Botanical Park, another little-known attraction in the Mineral Wells area. The 35-acre, privately owned garden is an explosion of colors and smells that will excite the senses. For more information, go to www.clarkgardens.org or call 940/682-4856.

985th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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