San Miguel Pale Pilsen beer bottle containing a letter, deposited October 19, 1990. Vietnam Veterans Memorial, VIVE 34057.

From the Exhibition:
Agents of Faith: Votive Objects in Time and Place

This bottle of San Miguel Pale Pilsner was placed at the base of panel 06 East (06E) of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, on October 19, 1990. In the tradition of sending a message across the open sea, a letter had been written and placed inside the bottle; however, instead of addressing the letter to the world at large, its author had a specific recipient in mind. Don George, a Vietnam veteran, had written the letter to his high school friend James Malcolm Arbuthnot, who had been killed in action in the Vietnam War on March 30, 1966, and whose name is etched on panel 06E. Don had rolled the letter up and slipped it inside the empty bottle before leaving it for his friend. Although he addressed Jim directly, his letter was, in effect, written for the world at large and left in a highly public place where anyone else could read it. When he placed it at the memorial, Don understood that the letter would never be read by its intended recipient. Or did he?

A common sight at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, alcoholic offerings are also known throughout the world as a traditional way of paying tribute or honor to the deceased. The practice of sharing a drink continues on in death as surviving family and friends visit graves, shrines, or memorials to commune with their loved ones. This bottle is just one example of a libation that has been left at the memorial, and since 1982, more than 150 containers of beer, wine, champagne, or liquor have been left there. Often a small amount of liquid will be consumed by the donor and the rest left for the deceased. Many times, these offerings are anonymous. In this case, however, those involved have left us clues so that we are able to tell some of their story.

Don and Jim both attended high school at the American School in the Philippines, and Don reminisces about their time together:

Hey Jim, Remember all the San Miguel bottles of beer that we drank while going to high school at the American School in Makati, Rizal, Republic of the Philippines during the 60’s? This one is in memory of you. I just wish we could have gotten together to share it one to one. See ya. Peace.
Jim had graduated from high school in 1964 and then joined the U.S. Army. Sometime later, he met a woman named Patricia, and between January 1965 and March 1966, he sent her thirteen letters describing his training and his first experiences in the war. His letters tell a great deal about his life during that short time. He attended basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and then airborne training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His tour in Vietnam began in January 1966. His letters are enthusiastic at first, but soon after arriving there he started to experience the horrors of war, and he describes some of these fears and anxieties in his letters. He learned early in his tour that previous service would enable him to cut his current obligation to just five months instead of the normal twelve. Unfortunately, he made it only to the second month of his tour. His last letter is dated March 24, 1966. He was killed six days later. The letters he wrote to Patricia are, like Don’s bottle, a votive offering at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Jim’s memory.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial museum collection is considered the first museum collection consisting entirely of votive offerings, or “memorial items,” that have been left at a memorial site or place of significance. The practice has sprung up at other places of national mourning: the Oklahoma City bombing site, the Boston Marathon bombing site, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The phenomenon is spurred by a desire to remember and honor the victims. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial it continues to be a very personal experience, even half a century after the end of the war.

When people leave these items, they may not be thinking about the tradition or the history of the act they are performing. When visitors are asked why they are leaving something as an offering, the usual reasons include a desire to communicate with the dead, pay respects, or remember those lost. Another common response is that the donor doesn’t really know the reason but simply feels compelled to do it. When Don George left his letter and beer bottle at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1990, he may have felt that he had found a way to actually communicate with his lost friend. He shared a moment (and a drink) with someone he wanted to remember, to pay his respects to. Through Don’s act, we have come to know a little more about the life of James Arbuthnot, who gave his life in service to his country.

Janet Folkerts, Museum Curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is on detail as Museum Curator (Acting) of the National Mall and Memorial Parks.