Phil Blake's decade-long drive to honor his comrades took a big step forward Saturday morning.
So did the dreams of a handful of surviving World War II veterans when organizers broke ground for a World War II monument, along with a nearby Revolutionary War monument, during an emotional ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park downtown.
Blake, the 87-year-old World War II veteran who is the driving force behind the growth of Veterans Memorial Park, was all smiles during the ceremony.
"This is a day I've dreamed of for 10 years," he said.
A couple of his fellow World War II veterans, 92-year-old Howard Sheldon and 87-year-old Bob Rogers, said they were full of pride as a ceremonial explosive charge broke ground for the monuments.
"Today is a proud moment," Sheldon said. "It's the reason I'm out here with my hat on. There's not very many of us left."
"It's a wonderful day," Rogers said. "A little hot, no breeze, but a wonderful day."
An emotional day, too, for Rogers, who recalled some of his lost comrades, a group that met locally at the Hometown Buffet every three months.
Three included Wichitan Parker Wiley, who died late last year of liver cancer, days after returning with Rogers from the national World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., on an Honor Flight.
"Parker was so sick with cancer and he wanted to go so badly," Rogers said, his voice cracking with emotion.
"His son said, 'Dad, if you can make it, I'll take you.' Well, Parker made it.
"The next Wednesday, I called to his house to check and see how Parker was doing," Rogers said, his eyes welling with tears.
"His son answered and told me Parker died that morning. Thank God he got the trip in."
There was emotion from the nonveterans in the crowd, too, including Ted Ayres, vice president and general counsel at Wichita State University, who serves as chairman of the World War II Memorial Corporation.
"I'm here for two reasons. My father and Phil Blake," Ayres said.
"My father served in World War II, the Army in the Battle of the Bulge, got a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
"I'm doing something for my Dad, who's no longer with us."
The Veterans Memorial Park fund drive is a decade old. Blake said he has raised $1 million for monuments.
Nearly $10,000 of the needed $35,000 had been raised for the World War II monument.
The goal is to have its 6-foot granite panels and brick walkway finished for the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing on Dec. 7.
"People ask me why, and my usual answer is that I can't help myself," Blake said,
"But there's a bigger story. Ten years ago, I looked at the Bicentennial Flag Memorial there and the city of Wichita had completely let it go. The only argument was whether to tear it down or turn it into something else.
"I was terribly offended because that's the flag I fought under. The city didn't know whose it was, but they said it wasn't their responsibility.
"So I made it mine."