Seated in a lawn chair 30 feet away, John Hanson of Grand Forks watched as a cherished dream came to life.
The 40-foot-wide, 6-foot-high black granite wall to honor American veterans was starting to take shape in Veterans Memorial Park, a project that has consumed his thoughts and energy for a long time.
“I’ve waited nine years for this,” said Hanson, who – along with Don Purpur – co-founded the park, a 6.2-acre site at South 24th Avenue and 34th Street. Purpur did not live to see this day; he died in March 2019.
Two flatbed vehicles transported the granite panels to the memorial park grounds early last week – deep ruts in the ground attest to the weight of the cargo – and a crane was used to lift and position the five panels, each weighing 6,300 pounds.
The Coldspring Company in Cold Spring, Minn., which worked on the Korean Memorial in Washington, D.C., “did the engraving of the pictures here,” Hanson pointed out. “The engraving is clearer and sharper than the actual photo.”
“The wall is huge; you can see it from two blocks away,” he said. “I think it’s the biggest one in the Midwest.”
A crane operator with the Borsheim Crane Service of Williston, N.D., was on hand June 3 to lift and position the panels into place.
With meticulous precision, two workers carefully guided a slab of black granite, hanging from straps, onto a concrete foundation.
Amos Kelley and Richard Sadergaski, employees of Artistic Stone and Concrete, St. Cloud, Minn., hovered next to a panel and guided its placement. They clearly had perfection in mind.
“We’re a 16th of an inch short on the bottom,” Kelley said, as one of the panels was lowered onto a concrete base.
“There’s going to be caulking here (in the seams) and mortar underneath,” Sadergaski pointed out.
Sadergaski relished the opportunity to work on the memorial, he said. “It’s fun doing these kinds of things, because they mean something, you know?”
U.S. military history
The placement of the wall’s five, black granite panels began June 1.
The series of 6-inch-thick panels chronologically depict historic images representing U.S. military missions, including “from the Revolutionary War to World War I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, to the Iraqi War and Desert Storm,” Hanson said. “Afghanistan is represented on the far right panel.”
About 150 images of military heroes are spread across a background of stripes, symbolizing the U.S. flag.
“Every ethnic group, every religious purpose and group is represented,” Hanson said.
Visitors will see etched pictures “in detail, (including) Teddy Roosevelt on horseback,” as well as pictures of people from North Dakota and other states, he said.
Horizontally across the top are 50 stars, representing the states, and across the bottom inspirational words: Independence, Liberty, Courage, Fidelity, Integrity, Service, Sacrifice, Duty and Honor.
Rising behind the wall are five, 25-foot-tall obelisks, each dedicated to a branch of the active-duty U.S. Uniformed Services and their respective Guard and Reserve Units – Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.
Kyle Slivnik, who works at Grand Forks Air Force Base, created an early design of the wall and the obelisks, Palmer said, and Greg Vettel, an area artist, came up with the final design for the wall.
“The Coldspring Company said they’ve never seen anything like that before, and they do a lot of these,” said Al Palmer, chairman of the Veterans Memorial Park Committee. “Ours is quite unique – and we’ve got Greg Vettel to thank for that.”
A wall displaying images rather than individual names is a departure from the norm, Hanson said.
Members of the Veterans Memorial Park Committee decided against listing names because they would inevitably have to correct misspelled names later – and making changes in granite is no easy task, Hanson said.
‘Veterans deserve better’
The idea for a veterans memorial park was spawned about a decade ago in a conversation between Hanson and Purpur at a motorcycle show. Purpur asked where the memorial to veterans was located in Grand Forks, Hanson recalled.
“I told him it’s a small stone under a tree at the Grand Forks County Courthouse. He said, ‘Don’t you think the veterans deserve better? Why the hell don’t we build a memorial?’”
Another veteran, the late Roger Westerso, was also involved in the early conceptualization of the park.
The Veterans Memorial Park is not meant only to honor veterans for their service, but also to educate. Committee members are planning to install an interactive kiosk and create a smartphone app with which a viewer can receive the individual story behind the wall’s images in the proposed Gen. Al Palmer Visitor Center. They also plan to install benches and erect shelters for family picnics on the grounds.
A dedication ceremony for Veterans Memorial Park is planned for June 2021.
As committee chairman, Palmer is very grateful to the people and organizations that have supported this project, he said. “The people, the businesses and the government of Grand Forks all have been extremely gracious.”
Committee members want the park to be a place where the legacy of American military veterans can be recognized and honored, they say. They hope people will come and reflect on the sacrifices veterans have made to protect American freedom and to learn about those who have borne that burden.
Among the veterans they’ll learn about are people like Cliff Cushman and Martin Steen, U.S. Air Force jet fighter pilots whose planes went down in Vietnam; their remains were never found, Hanson said. And Chuck Lindberg, a U.S. Marine Corps corporal and member of a group of U.S. soldiers who raised the first American flag on Iwo Jima in World War II.
These veterans “are hometown heroes,” Hanson said. “We’re going to memorialize them in stone forever.”