WASHINGTON -- They are there. You have to stand close and almost put your nose against the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but the cracks are there.
They look like tiny rivers running across the vast black marble expanse. About the width of three human hairs, you can barely feel them if you run your finger over them.
But Jan Scruggs, the former Army infantry corporal responsible for getting the $7 million memorial built, is worried.
"It's unlikely that the cracks would cause one of the [memorial's] panels to split in half," he said, "but what's going to happen 30 or 40 years from now?"
The answer is, nobody knows.
To be on the safe side, Mr. Scruggs has sent out 500,000 letters appealing for donations to pay for replacement panels. The polished granite from India already is in the United States and is being aged to match the stone on the memorial.
Mr. Scruggs hopes to raise about $1 million by next September for the stone, ongoing maintenance and adding names to the memorial.
The cracks haven't exactly been a secret, but few of the 2 million people who visit the memorial annually know about them.
The tiny fissures were discovered shortly after the memorial was dedicated in November 1983.
Since then, Mr. Scruggs and the memorial's architects and builders have been involved in discussions -- and a legal dispute -- over the origin of the cracks, who might be responsible and what should be done about them. Mr. Scruggs was the only party willing to discuss the problem.
"We really felt that we had built a perfect memorial free of any design flaws," said Mr. Scruggs, who is president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. "We're very upset that this has occurred."
He said that at last count, there were 18 hairline cracks on 14 of the memorial's 142 panels. Some are only an inch or two long. The longest measures about 14 inches.
A lot of experts have studied the cracks, but they have not come to a unanimous conclusion, other than that the memorial is in no immediate danger.
One theory is that the granite was slightly flawed when it was cut and sent to the United States for final polishing and engraving of the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam. Another theory is that the cracks were caused by the way the panels were anchored in place.
The National Park Service, which watches over the memorial but leaves the costs of upkeep and repairs to Mr. Scruggs' group, doesn't believe the memorial design is at fault.
Mr. Scruggs said that some of the cracks have lengthened over the years but that they still don't appear to go much below the surface of the granite slabs.
The memorial fund has purchased enough granite to replace 10 of the largest panels. The stone, at Quantico Marine Base in nearby Virginia, has been set on metal stands facing the same direction as the stone on the memorial and is subjected to the same weather "so they won't stick out like a sore thumb" if they eventually have to be used, Mr. Scruggs said.