Watch Fires On The Hudson

Without names, memories are lost.
Without memories, the past is lost.
Without the past, the future is lost.

Inscription on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Orangeburg

On Memorial Day, every year since 1987, the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 333 has kept watch for the fallen and missing servicemen of the Vietnam War by lighting massive beacon fires on the Piermont Pier, on Clausland Mountain, at Bowline Park and at Gene Levy Park in Rockland County. The fires are watched over by veterans taking shifts throughout the night, as they did in Vietnam from their base camps on mountain tops, when their comrades had not returned from patrol.

The tradition of the ceremonial bonfire, started by Jerry Donnellan, the chapter’s founder, derives from the long history of the watch fire in military history. During the Revolutionary war, General George Washington ordered beacons to be built along the Watchung Mountain Range in northern New Jersey. These encampments had unobstructed views of the country east of the range from New York Bay to Springfield; to the west to Basking Ridge; to the south to Middlebrook; and to the north to Orange County. Sentries could easily detect enemy movements for hundreds of miles around and alert the entire region simultaneously by either firing cannon during the day or by lighting a blazing fire at night.

Washington tasked General Alexander, Lord Stirling, to build the signal fires on “conspicuous hills and mountains” on the eastern side of the Watchungs, then known as the Blue Hills, to guard against surprise attack out of New York from General Clinton’s forces. The original specifications, subsequently changed by time and location, required logs to be stacked in a grid with each tier at 90 degrees to the one below, 14 feet square at the base rising to 18 or 20 feet, with split wood and brush filling the gaps and a stout sapling in the middle rising 30 feet high and topped with a tarred wick. The wick was lit by gunshot. It took twenty-four men one full day to cut the trees and assemble the logs.

Originally, there were 23 beacons stretching over 40 miles from Somerset County to Bergen County, following the edge of the cliffs and appropriating overlooks originally used by the Lenape tribe for their smoke signal fires. Eventually, the beacon fires were extended up the east side of the Hudson River to the Hudson Highlands. The British army attacked twice, but each time, was foiled by militia alerted by the fires.

Before the watch fire is lit at midnight on the eve of Memorial Day, a bayonetted rifle is stabbed into the earth with a pair of clean jungle boots fully laced at its base, symbolizing the spot where the fallen warrior last stood in defense of liberty. A helmet placed on the rifle butt provides the warrior protection against the suffering and pain of war. Then as the fire burns over the course of the next 24 hours, the names of the fallen and missing are called out. Private memories are visited. Al D’Agistino, the current Chapter president, attends all four fires during the night, making sure that he greets every veteran who’s come out to sit vigil.

Chapter 333 welcomes veterans from all wars and hopes to attract those from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. It has been slow going. Mr. D’Agistino notes that some people are reluctant to reveal that they’ve been to war. There have been no ticker tape parades, no welcoming home for them. But he hopes that, in time, they will take the baton from the Vietnam vets and keep the fires burning. For more information on the Vietnam Veterans Of America, go to