WORLD WAR II MEMORIAL
VETERANS' MEMORIAL PARK IN WICHITA, KANSAS

 

Memorial Dedication
Ted D. Ayres - May 28, 2017

Good afternoon ... what a glorious day and thank you to our musicians!

We want to sincerely welcome you to this solemn and sacred ground. Veterans' Memorial Park is a place of respect, honor, patriotism, courage, sacrifice, service and love. But today, it is also a place of pride, celebration, commemoration and joy! Thank you for being with us.

Our mission today is threefold: to celebrate the completion of the World War II memorial here in Veterans' Memorial Park ... to honor those women and men who served our country [and the world] so valiantly and so courageously ... and to thank all of you who have been a part of the journey of making this beautiful memorial happen! Of course, holding this celebration on Memorial Day weekend is also our way of thanking all of you who have served in the military or who are currently serving our country.

The War
"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."

Those prophetic words were from Admiral Yamamoto, Commander of Japan's Naval Forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor ... 75 years, 5 months and 21 days ago this day.

On December 7, President Roosevelt's two speechwriters were out of town. He dictated his words to his secretary on the phone and he finished around midnight. When he awoke on the morning of the 8th, a typed draft awaited him.

As Roosevelt traveled to the joint meeting of Congress in the Presidential limousine, he pored over his speech, weighing every word. His opening line announced that the previous day would "live in history." It seemed much too pale a phrase. He scratched out "history" ... he needed something that would express the nation's outrage. Above the scratched out word "history," he wrote "infamy."

I would like to share some excerpts from that historic proclamation to the Joint Session of Congress, our anxious nation and the world:

"Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date that will live in infamy–the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by Naval and Air Forces of the Empire of Japan.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and the Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the People when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery will never again endanger us.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph–so help us God."

World War II was a global military conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945. Kansas, already important to the nation's aviation industry because of icons like Walter and Olive Beech, Clyde Cessna, Lloyd Stearman, Amelia Earhart, quickly became a key military aircraft manufacturer and trainer.

The state sent pilots, planes, Dwight David Eisenhower, and more than 215,000 young Kansas men and women to the war.

As Sen. Bob Dole reminisced years later:
"It was a good deal; you got a good deal; you got a good pair of boots, three meals a day, new clothing, a new rifle. It was the most many young Americans had ever had."

Unfortunately, more than 3,500 of those young men and women from Kansas would be killed in action.

Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth trained and shipped thousands of troops overseas.

Navy pilots and crewmen trained at Naval air stations in Hutchinson and Olathe. Their Army Air Force bomber counterparts (B-17, B-24 and B-29) trained at numerous air bases built across the state in Herington, Wichita, Salina, Great Bend, Pratt, Dodge City, Garden City, Coffeyville, Liberal, Topeka, Hays, Winfield and Independence.

Boeing's Wichita factories were producing more than 40 percent of all the invaluable B-29 "Superfortresses" sent to World War II ... more than 1,600 of the giant bombers. By 1944, there were 55,000 aircraft workers in Wichita alone.

Worldwide, there were more than 100 million military personnel mobilized during the war. It was the deadliest conflict in human history resulting in some 60 million fatalities.

Over 16 million individual members of the U.S. Armed forces served in WWII and over 400,000 made the supreme sacrifice for their country. There were almost 671,000 non-mortal woundings.

Victory came first in the European theater, where President Roosevelt had appointed General Eisenhower as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces.

But before victory in Europe was achieved on May 8, 1945, places like Anzio, Utah Beach, Bloody Omaha, Malmedy, Saint-Mere-Eglise, the Bulge, Remagen, Buchenwald and Dachau would be added to Americans' geographic vocabularies. In the Pacific, Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Bataan, and Corregidor would be avenged with Japan's surrender on Aug. 14, 1945, on the deck of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri. American blood that had been shed at Midway, Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, made the victory in the Pacific possible. Atomic bombs dropped from B-29s on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made it certain.

As Donald Stratton wrote in his great book, All the Gallant Men, the First Memoir by a USS Arizona Survivor:
"We were so young, those of us who enlisted–eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. Too young to go through what we endured that day, I can tell you that. If we were not quite men on December 6, by midmorning of the 7th we were."

The Monument

The monument ties together the eight existing memorials in the park and identifies them as "World War II Row." This memorial is a tangible tribute to loved ones, heroes and history. It will stand here forever ... to honor those who served America.

The memorial consists of two black granite panels, each six feet tall and eight inches thick. One panel addresses all U.S. military campaigns during WWII and lists the eight existing memorials. The other panel includes a reference to the 16.3 million veterans who served in the war and lists all of the branches of service and the 400,000 who died.

Kilroy is on the back, with the ubiquitous "Kilroy was here."

And, of course, 1,511 bricks honoring those who served ... in three distinct pathways with 175 rows. As you may know, the original plan was for 500 bricks in one area. However, the popularity of the memorial and the ability to honor the veterans of WWII exceeded our every expectation.

There was a need to move expeditiously. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, around 620,000 Americans from the war were estimated to be alive in 2016. The department also estimated that in 2016, 372 American WWII veterans died every day.

Obviously, this beautiful monument did not just happen. While many were involved along the way, it should be remembered that the driving force behind making this dream come true was Philip W. Blake, the acknowledged "commandant" of Veterans' Memorial Park.

On Sept. 17, 2010, Phil Blake wrote a Letter to the Editor and he was responding to a previous letter written by Bob Rogers suggesting that there be a World War II memorial in Veterans Memorial Park.

Phil, in his typical direct manner, wrote:
"There is a logical place for such a memorial. It can be constructed and it would add much to the park. Now, all that is needed is for veterans of World War II, their descendants and friends to join together to transform the idea into a reality."

I will have more about Phil Blake in a minute.
The articles of incorporation for World War II Memorial Inc. were executed on Oct. 29, 2010 [shout out to John Gibson of the Gilliland and Hayes law firm]. The mission statement of the corporation:

"To organize, plan, design and construct a memorial in Veterans Memorial Park, Wichita, Kansas, to honor those men and women who served in the Armed Forces of the United States during World War II, 1941-1946."

The first meeting of the Board was Oct. 30, 2010.
We held a public ground-breaking on July 09, 2011.
The memorial was dedicated on Nov. 12, 2011.
We celebrated the final installation of bricks on July 04, 2013.
And here we are today, some 6 and ½ years later!

As we mark the celebration of the completion of the memorial today with the addition of the alphabetical directory [which means that every veteran's brick can be easily located...from George Ackerman to Henry Zoglman], I want to publicly acknowledge and thank our Board members, most of whom are in the audience today.

I also want to pay personal tribute to Phil Blake, my friend, mentor, hero and someone I admired very much. In an article in the Feb. 7, 2011 Wichita Eagle, Rick Plumlee described Phil as being "a monumental figure in honoring city's veterans."

As you may know, Phil left us on Nov. 12, 2014, at the age of 90.
In an editorial the following day, the Wichita Eagle noted:
"The Wichita City Council declared Sept. 13, 2011, to be ‘Philip Blake Day.' The proclamation said the best way to honor Blake's legacy was by lending ‘physical and financial support for his efforts in keeping all veteran memorials alive for generations to come.'"
That's still true. Blake will be missed, but his mission continues.

Phil Blake was born on Dec. 26, 1923 in Wichita. He grew up in Watonga, Oklahoma, during the Depression years. He joined the U.S. Army in 1942 and served three years in the South Pacific. He received his degree in mathematics from KU in 1950 ... the same year he married Minnie Howard. He taught school at Junction City until 1952 when he came back to Wichita to work in the engineering department at Boeing. After 17 years at Boeing and 23 years as a safety consultant, Phil Blake retired in 1994.

One of my favorite stories about Phil relates to his personal experience with "Kilroy." In 1944, when Phil was an army sergeant serving with an anti-aircraft unit in the South Pacific and at a stop in New Guinea Bay, he decided to dive down to see a sunken Japanese ship. It was not such a wise decision. Phil said:

It was a lot deeper than I thought. People who are young do that kind of foolish thing. However, he made it ... and found "Kilroy Was Here" scribbled on the side of the sunken ship!

In 2007, Phil published a book entitled They Paid the Price. In the dedication, he wrote:
"To the thousands of men and women who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States, this book is dedicated. Their willingness to enter into harm's way and to risk injury or death to do whatever was necessary to defend those concepts of freedom and opportunity which distinguish our proud national heritage, has set them apart from the remainder of our population. They have all paid the price of our freedom."

Phil's family was very important to him. His children are Sally, Laura and Kenneth. At the time of his death, Phil had seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. I believe that his grandsons Kyle and Scott are with us, along with Scott's wife Amanda and their children James, Chloe and Seth. Thank you for being with us today.

Please join me in a moment of silence to honor Phil Blake, the commandant of veterans memorial park.

The Stories

After the dedication in 2011, Mr. Harry Bayouth, wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Eagle. He said:
"As they gathered there, walking up with their walkers and canes, I thought to myself that they were the ‘Heart of America.' They could all share stories of what they went through, stories that would make our skin crawl."

As I have noted, and said, many times, every one of the bricks in this memorial tells a very personal story and celebrates many people who stepped up, and forward, in a time of crisis for our nation and the world.

As Mr. Stratton said, in speaking about the crew of the U.S.S. Arizona:
"There was a Jastremski from Michigan
An O'Bryan from Massachusetts
A Schroeder from New Jersey
A Giovenazzo from Illinois
A Riggins from California
A Nelson from Arkansas
A Smith from about everywhere
And a Stratton from Nebraska."

Let's consider some of our stories.

Frederick "Freddy" Simon [Row 16] grew up on a farm near Colwich, Kansas. He was denied entry into the army due to his young age when he first tried enlisting after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But in 1943, after high school, he enlisted, trained at Fort Riley, and served as a Private First Class on the first wave of ships at Leyte, Philippines. For his service during WWII, Freddy was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained and the Bronze Star for valor.

Bob Rogers [Row 31] was a 20-year-old Army Corporal attached to the 101st airborne division set to take part in D-Day by flying in on a glider early on June 6. However, plans changed and he later found himself landing on Omaha Beach with other U.S. Troops. "Never so seasick in my life. It was worse than a glider." But not as bad as the German artillery shells that were exploding all around him as they moved inward. He took shrapnel in his back, and a few days later, two pieces of shrapnel punched into his helmet and ripped his head. More than two months at a hospital in Oxford, England followed. Bob said, "Can't say I ever saw the University."

Dick Cowan [Row 174], the only Wichitan to receive the Medal of Honor during WWII, is honored with a brick. Cowan was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, graduated from North High School in 1940 and attended Friends University. He was drafted into the Army in 1943 and was soon fighting in Europe.

On Dec. 17, 1944, Cowan was in Belgium when his company was attacked by an overwhelmingly superior force of German infantry and tanks. Pfc. Cowan, a heavy machine gunner, almost single-handedly protected retreating U.S troops during what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. He held his position despite being rocked by a shell fired by a German tank, and he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire while killing or wounding about 40 German soldiers. After surviving the attack, he and other soldiers went to a nearby barn late that night to sleep. A German tank fired a shell into the barn and killed Cowan. He had turned 22 less than two weeks earlier. His friend and North High School classmate, Dick Ayesh, said: "He was a common Joe who did uncommon things."

There is a story behind four bricks – side by side – bearing the last name Gonzales [Row 48]. Four Gonzales brothers from Newton – Jose, Daniel, Carmen, Doroteo – served in the European or Pacific theaters. Jose, who served from 1943 to 1945, served in an Army aviation battalion that went in immediately after Marines to build installations like airstrips, vital in the fight against the Japanese. Jose got shot at. He remembered the sounds of richocheting bullets. The installations were common targets of Japanese bombing. "I'm one of the lucky ones to come back."

Rogene Gripe, widow of Thomas l. Gripe [Row 13], has a story. She was a 16-year-old clerk at a downtown Wichita drugstore when a customer paid the bill with a dollar bill with writing on it: a name of a soldier and a Florida address. On a whim, Rogene wrote to the solder and they started corresponding. While on leave, he came to Wichita to meet Rogene and her family in January of 1944. She met him through his dollar bill, which somehow ended up in her hand in the drug store. "What a dollar bill can buy." They got married the day after he got home from the war. They had four children and had been married almost 50 years when Thomas passed away in 1995.

The U.S.S. Mason was the only vessel in the segregated, World War II Navy in which blacks were something other than cooks and waiters. The Mason was a destroyer escort and it escorted six convoys across the North Atlantic.

They were officially recognized for heroism in escorting support ships to England in 1944 through 90-mile-an-hour winds and 40-foot waves. During the storm of the century, and after their first landfall in England, and while at sea, the sailors braved harsh weather to quickly weld cracks that split the deck and that threatened to tear their ship apart, then returned to sea to guide other ships to harbor.

Would all of you who served, or are currently serving in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Navy or Merchant Marine please stand ... if you can and are able ... let us honor you with our respect and a round of applause.

We encourage you to stay, visit, find your veteran, take pictures, commemorate, celebrate and honor the greatest generation.

We would love to hear from you and we would love to have your support and assistance in making the monument be a living memorial!

We will now place the dedication wreath at the memorial. Two members of our board, Freddy Simon and Bob Rogers, will place the wreath.

Closing Remarks

As the Scottish poet, Thomas Campbell, wrote:
"To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die
The men and women memorialized here will live on forever!"

Let me also leave you with this un-attributed prayer from page 109 of Donald Stratton's book:
"Dear Lord,
Lest I continue
My complacent way,
Help me to remember that somewhere,
Somehow out there
A man died for me today.
As long as there be war,
I must answer
Am I worth dying for?"

As we close our program with taps by Kevin Pickrell, U.S. Army, let's have a brief Moment of Silence to honor those men and women in the military who currently serve our nation all around the globe and to honor all Americans who have served America.

Please enjoy yourself and let us wait on the fly-over by the bi-planes from the Benton airport.

Copyright, Ted D. Ayres 2017


Sources:
All the Gallant Men by Donald Stratton with Ken Gire, 2016, William Morrow, 270 pages.
Beyond Cold Blood, Larry Welch, 2012, University Press of Kansas, 374 pages.
Proudly We Served, Mary Pat Kelly, 1995, Naval Institute Press, 180 pages.
They Paid the Price, Phil Blake, 2007, Veterans Memorial Park, Inc., 106 pages.


News coverage of the event:

Celebration to honor veterans at new World War II memorial - Wichita Eagle
World War II Memorial Celebration - VIP Wichita
WWII vets, supporters celebrate memorial’s completion - Wichita Eagle