Remnants of war

From 2000: Mementos at the Wall
Visitors leave mementos at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. CBS News

It is among America's most visited and most poignant sites: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

From the day it was dedicated in 1982, "The Wall" touched people so profoundly that a remarkable tradition began: Visitors leave behind intensely personal messages and mementos. CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

Every day, a National Park Service ranger carefully collects the remembrances. And every day, more are left in their place.

"It's a very touching phenomenon because I'd never seen anything like it before," says Anthony Migliaccio, who was maintenance foreman when the memorial was dedicated. "I recall photographs of men in uniform. I recall Teddy bears. I recall letters from mothers and girlfriends and that type of thing, from the first day. As far as what to do with it goes, I couldn't bring myself to dispose of it."

So he and his crew stowed the items in a tool shed.

"We had a very rudimentary method of trying to catalogue it," he recalls with a smile. "You know, we're just a bunch of maintenance workers. You know, we did what we could."

Migliaccio couldn't have known the magnitude of what would evolve. Soon there were thousands of articles, and the Park Service decided it had a historic collection on its hands, including dog tags, medals, wedding rings, photographs, and, most of all, letters.

By 1989, the Park Service needed help cataloging the growing inventory, and Duery Felton volunteered. Today, he's the curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection.

Felton is himself a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient. And although he can identify many of the objects left at The Wall, their significance is often known only to the donor, items like beer, ravioli, and cigarettes. (Beer and cigarettes were part of the Vietnam soldier's C-rations.)

"We read a lot of correspondence here," he says, "and one of the things I advise researcher is that you have to learn to read - but not read. Because this collection is uncensored and, in many instances, it is intense. And you will figuratively lose your mind."

Most of the offerings are anonymous. But at times, Felton can piece together stories, like the one behind an essay left at "The Wall" by Nancy Coon, an art teacher at Glen Ridge High in New Jersey. It was written by one of her former students, Thomas Bonine.

Coon recalls, "As a 19-year-old, he enlisted and was sent to Vietnam immediately, trained as a helicopter pilot. That's where his story began and ended. In Vietnam."

Here is an excerpt from his essay, titled What Do You Consider Beauty?: "There's even beauty in death, so peaceful and calm, because death is just another beginning. I would think if you look long enough and hard enough, you can find some beauty in everything."

Today, the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Collection has grown to an astonishing size: 64,000 pieces, most of them stored in Landover, Md.

But the National Park Service also loans out exhibits. There's one at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, and another at the Jersey Explorer Children's Museum. Gary Patnosh takes the items into New Jersey schools, where he says they have more personal impact than any history lesson.

Making a history of 64,000 articles is a task that may never be fully completed. Felton enters each item into a computer, meticulously cross-referenced by categories like name, meaning, and military unit.

"This collection is really a social history being written by the everyday person," Felton explains. "The public is curating this collection. The public is saying, 'This is what's important to me.'"

Just as "The Wall" assures that the cost of Vietnam will never be forgotten, this collection will bring life to the names for generations to come.