At midnight on May 29, four huge ceremonial watch fires will light up Rockland County night skies as they have for the last 35 years. The local chapter #333 of the Vietnam Veterans of America originated the idea of watch fires as a memorial for those lost in the Vietnam War. They modeled the watch fires upon Revolutionary War signal fires. The dramatic, stirring, and never-to-be-forgotten Memorial Day ceremonies give heart-felt thanks to those who gave so much in service to our country.
“We decided the watch fires should be on the traditional Memorial Day (May 30) and not require a band, fireworks, or an audience other than those who understood.” Jerry Donnellan, Founder, Chapter 333, Vietnam Veterans of America
Signal fires have been used for war communications from ancient times. The Iliad mentions the use of signal fires. A sophisticated set of beacons helped speed communication with Constantinople during the Arab-Byzantine war in the 10th century.
Probably the most famous beacon is that on Beacon Hill in Boston erected in 1634. A bucket of tar atop a 65-foot tower could be lit to provide advance warning of a potential invasion.
Revolutionary War Beacons
George Washington ordered signal fires (or signal towers) built on prominent places to warn of British troop and naval incursions in New York and New Jersey.They became known as beacons. Washington specified that watch fire logs be stacked some 18 feet high and 21 feet square at the base. A sapling with a tarred wick stretching up to 30’ was placed in the middle. It took 24 men working all day to build a beacon. Rockland Vietnam veterans build watch fires to those specifications.
Revolutionary War soldiers built a series of beacons that ran along the Watchung Mountains and along the Hudson River near West Point to monitor the British. Some 23 beacon sites have been identified, 8 of which were in the Hudson River Valley surrounding West Point. Beacon, NY, is so named for its Revolutionary War beacon. Clausland, Hook, and High Tor Mountains may have been part of the chain of beacons.
The movements of British troops and the navy could be quickly communicated. The watch fires worked 24/7, flames at night could be seen for miles. During the day, the watch fires were made to smoke.
The end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 was announced in the Hudson River Valley by setting off watch fires along the Hudson River.
Memorial Day Was Once Decoration Day
Some 25 different places claim to have originated Decoration Day, so named because it was a time when fallen Civil War soldiers’ graves were decorated with flowers. The generally accepted national origin is 1868, at least in the north, when General John Logan issued a proclamation setting aside May 30 as “Decoration Day” to be observed nationally and annually. As time went on, all veterans of all wars were to be remembered.
The use of the term “Memorial Day” was often used in place of “Decoration Day” but not commonly until after WWII. Congress passed a law enacted in 1971 making Memorial Day the last Monday of May, thereby creating the three-day weekend we now have. The Vietnam Vets watch fires are lit purposely on the traditional Memorial Day of May 30.
Rockland’s First Memorial Day Watch Fires
Jerry Donnellan, a stage production manager who lost a leg in the Vietnam War, organized the Rockland Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America in February 1987. Their first big project was building watch fires in five locations on May 30 to honor fallen Vietnam vets and to bring together the forgotten vets who served. The vets took special care to build the first fires at classic Revolutionary War mountain-top locations, including Clausland, Hook, High Tor, and Bear Mountains. Piermont Pier was added as symbol for the many soldiers that debarked from the pier bound for Europe in WWII.
The logs used are huge and the fire pyramid is impressive . It requires tremendous effort to build large watch fires on mountain tops and then manage the fires for a 24-hour period. The early watch fires were lit at 12:01a on the traditional Memorial Day of May 30 and ran for a full 24 hours.
Watch Fires Over Time
After Rockland County got the ball rolling, others joined in just as Jerry Donnellan predicted they would in 1987. Watch fires appeared the next year in Orange, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties, along the Delaware River, along Lake Erie and Lake Michigan, in Texas, and on Pikes Peak, Colorado, to name just a few.
The drama of mountain-top watch fires is not only difficult to build, but also hard for the public to participate. Watch fires were moved to allow for more direct participation. Over time the watch fire at Hook Mountain was moved to the base of the mountain then discontinued. The Bear Mountain watch fire also disappeared. In 1997, the fire atop High Tor was moved to Bowline Point Park to allow for more public participation. The Clausland Mountain watch fire on the south side of the Nike Missile Park is the remaining mountain-top watch fire.
In 1996, Eugene Levy park in Ramapo was added as a site. On Veterans Day in 2001, the Vietnam Veterans lit a memorial watch fire for victims of 9/11.
The Watch Fires
The fires are huge. Just as Washington once mandated, large tree trunks are interlaced in a tall stack. The hilltop fires once used helicopters to deliver wood. Local tree services and contractors with heavy equipment give of their time and resources to build the fires. Local fire departments are involved for safety.
Art Gunther, a reporter with the Journal News, counted 110 rings on one trunk at the Piermont Pier watch fire. The tree was once alive, Gunter noted, during the Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The vigil process at each watch fire is somewhat different. Generally, 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.
“We stand watch, changing shifts as we had a generation ago, symbolically keeping watch for our lost patrol that still has not returned, and the patrols of past wars, to our country’s first soldiers who fought and may still wander along these shores.” Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 333
A ceremony proceeds the fire lighting usually at 11:30p. Names of the 46 fallen and missing Rockland County Vietnam War Veterans are called out, sometimes punctuated by the ringing of a bell, sometimes with a rifle salute. Depending on the location, the ceremony starts with a three-gun salute and a bugler playing taps. Bagpipes play Amazing Grace. A flag retirement ceremony is held at 7p at Bowline Park on Memorial Day where flags are respectfully retired.
Watch Fire 2023
The watch fire ceremonies will begin at 11:30p May 29 and burn for 24 hours at four locations.
- Bowline Point Park in Haverstraw
- Eugene Levy Memorial Park on Rt. 45 in Pomona
- The top of Clausland Mountain in Orangeburg
- East end of Piermont Pier
United In Memory
It seems more appropriate than ever that watch fires unite Americans in memory of our fallen veterans whose lives were cut so short, who in the words of many, “gave their tomorrows for our todays.” For those who enlisted, for those who were drafted, for those who felt they had to resist, for those who were wounded, and for those who never came back, for those young adults from 50 years ago who are forever bonded together because of the Vietnam War, the flames of these watch fires unite us in memory.
Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.