Park 16 years in the making pays tribute to Vietnam veterans and their letters home

Rico and Mary Ann Pinamonti with the statue of their brother, Marine Pvt. Ernie Pinamonti, at Veterans Memorial Park in Vista.
(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

It’s been nearly 47 years since Marine Pvt. Ernie Pinamonti was killed in Vietnam by small arms fire, and 16 since his grieving father donated land for a park in his son’s memory.

Carl Pinamonti died in 2007 without ever seeing the memorial built, but earlier this week the park he called “Ernie’s Place” finally was dedicated.

For the last five years, two of Ernie’s six siblings, Mary Ann and Rico Pinamonti, have worked with the northern San Diego County city of Vista to create a park that honored not only their brother’s heroism and sacrifice, but also that of many others who fought and died in the war.


The centerpiece of Veterans Memorial Park, built on a narrow 1-acre site at South Santa Fe Avenue near East Broadway, is a bronze statue of Ernie by a reflecting pond, reading a letter from home. The statue is surrounded by walls and walkways embedded with porcelain tiles that were engraved with dozens of letters from Vietnam written by Ernie and others.

“Don’t worry about what I have said. I am so healthy I can’t get a day out of the field and you know I’m too damn mean to die.” — Army 1st Lt. Dean Brooks Allen, in a 1969 letter to his wife, four days before he was killed by a land mine.

Mary Ann, who was 18 when her brother died, and Rico, who was 4, said they were pleased they could finally achieve their father’s vision — but they didn’t expect the punch in the gut it delivers nearly every time they visit.

“It comes in waves,” Mary Ann said. “I didn’t realize how exposed I would feel seeing Ernie’s letters out here in public. This is our family’s story. People come and they cry and they’re very moved. It’s more difficult than I expected it would be.”

“It’s really getting short now. Only 338 days left. I’m really proud of myself. Fifty-four days in Vietnam and I don’t have so much as a little scar.” — One of Ernie’s last letters to his parents, written eight days before he died while running to rescue a fellow Marine near An Hoa Combat Base in May 1969. He was 19.

Ernie didn’t tell his parents, Carl and Mary, when he secretly enlisted in the Marines, figuring he’d get a shorter deployment. They were deeply concerned but supportive during his basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and at Camp Pendleton. Mary Ann rode with her parents to March Air Force base in March 1969 to see him off, never imagining it would be the last time she’d see him.


Ernie’s death devastated his parents, who would eventually divorce. Carl was a developer and, in 2000, he donated a 3/4-acre parcel on Guajome Street to the city with the agreement it would be used for a Vietnam memorial. But Vista didn’t have the money to build the park, so the land sat vacant.

Carl died seven years later, then Mary in 2011. That year the city came to their adult children and offered to exchange the Guajome parcel for land on South Santa Fe, which it would pay to maintain in perpetuity if the family could underwrite the artistic and memorial monuments. With $100,000 raised through donations and in-kind services from friends in the construction business, the family’s vision took shape.

The park includes a children’s play area, one of Carl’s wishes, and the statue by Oregon sculptor Rip Caswell, who used photos of Ernie to create his likeness, including the correct style of uniform and boots and even the dog tags (taped together to avoid noise in the bush) that he would have worn.

The letter in the sculpture’s hand begins with the words “Dear Ernie.”

In his letters home, Ernie told his parents how mail time was the highlight of his day, a sentiment shared by other letter-writers featured at the park.

“For a while as I read your letters, I am a normal person. I’m not killing people, or worried about being killed ... but proud to be an American and Marine and fighting in the company of men who make this world safe for ice skating, department stores and lampshades.” — Marine Capt. Rodney Chastant, who died in October 1968, a year after writing this letter reassuring his parents he enjoyed the trivial details of their news from home.


Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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