A monumental figure in honoring city's veterans

It looks like Veterans Memorial Park will finally get its World War II monument. "It needed to be done," WWII veteran Phil Blake said.

Plans and fundraising are under way for the $30,000 project, which will feature two six-foot-tall granite panels. Hopes are that it will be in place by December, around Pearl Harbor Day.

"He's the epicenter for this," Ted Ayres said of Blake, the unofficial caretaker of Wichita's veterans memorials. Ayres chairs World War II Memorial Inc., the group that is pushing the plans forward.

Through the years, Blake, 87, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve the city's existing monuments for all wars and veterans and to get others built. He also has established a nonprofit that helps maintain the memorials and written a book about them, "They Paid the Price."

"Our schools are not teaching about the past struggles that our country has engaged in," Blake said. "Many don't know that Pearl Harbor started World War II. They don't realize that veterans memorials are not put there to run skateboards up and down."

The existing memorial

As a child, Blake used to play around the old cannon at the Spanish-American War monument in Riverside Park. Today, he uses his passion for this country's veterans by working on memorials.

Stomach and esophagus cancer slowed Blake in 2006 when he was in a coma for six weeks. Doctors told him the cancer was terminal.

But he bounced back the next year and continued his efforts.

So it's not surprising that for nearly a decade, people would go to Blake and ask him to get a WWII memorial in Veterans Memorial Park, along the Arkansas River near downtown Wichita at 339 N. Greenway Blvd.

A former engineer in the aircraft industry, Blake is all for grand plans as long as they are well thought out and the workload is shared. When someone asked about establishing a new WWII memorial, his response was always the same:

"If you want one bad enough to work for it,''

Blake said, "I'll help you. But I'm not going to build it for you."

Another veteran thought he had an easy solution: He suggested moving the existing WWII monument at McAdams Park to Veterans Memorial Park.

But then Blake gave him a history lesson on that monument:

It was dedicated on July 11, 1946, and placed in what was then McKinley Park. Blake knows that because he was there.

Six black women baked and sold chocolate cookies to raise the money for the monument. Over the years, it was moved numerous times within the park and usually neglected.

"It was a stepchild," Blake said.

He found it one day in 2004 sitting between two sycamore trees with sap running all over it.

He cleaned it up and raised money to have it moved to its current location near McAdams' concession stand. It was rededicated in November 2004 — benches and flags were later added.

So, no, Blake said, that monument is staying put.

"We owe it to those six black women," he said.

But the idea of a new monument remained alive.

The WWII memorial

Last summer, a group of veterans and others who were willing to use their energy and time joined forces with Blake to place a memorial in Veterans Memorial Park. In December, World War II Memorial Inc. had its first official meeting.

The park already has eight memorials relating to WW II, including for Pearl Harbor survivors and some branches of the service. All eight are along a sidewalk known as the Veterans Memorial Walk.

What needed to be done was to put up something to "pull them all together," said Ayres, vice president and general counsel for Wichita State University and the son of a WW II vet.

"This monument will honor all World War II veterans," he said. "It will explain and associate those monuments already there with World War II."

The monument will be placed along the memorial walk. One panel will address all U.S. military campaigns during WW II and list the eight existing memorials. The other panel will include a reference to the 16.3 million veterans who served in the war and list all of the branches of service and the 400,000 who died.

But that's not all. On the back of one of the panels will be engraved, "Kilroy was here," with a sketch of a bald-headed man poking his long nose over a wall. In fact, Operation Kilroy is the name of the project to put a memorial in the park.

The tale behind the legendary inscription is that James Kilroy, a naval shipyard inspector in Boston during WW II, put those words and drawing on all work he had approved. But it soon began showing up all over WW II theaters.

"We saw it in so many places we swore the Germans had to be doing some of it," said Bob Rogers, a WW II veteran was in the Normandy landing and who is on the memorial board with Blake and Ayres.

Blake thought it was important to make Kilroy a part of the memorial. Like other WW II vets, he had a personal encounter with Kilroy.

In 1944, Blake was an Army sergeant serving with an anti-aircraft unit on a ship in the South Pacific. During a stop in New Guinea bay, he dove down to see a sunken Japanese ship.

OK, not all of his plans have been well thought out.

"Turned out to be a lot deeper than I thought," Blake said. "People who are young do that kind of foolish thing."

But he made it and found — you guessed it —"Kilroy was here" scribbled on the side of the sunken ship.

Other projects

The WW II memorial isn't Blake's only current project at Veterans Memorial Park.

As a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, he's also helping support the building of an American Revolution memorial. And he's involved with the "Operation Freedom Memorial," a project seeking funds for a monument honoring Kansans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I'm not doing this for my ego," Blake said. "Our flag flies free today became of these veterans' sacrifice."

James Martin, 90, a WW II vet who served with the 451st Bomb Group in Italy, appreciates those efforts. He just wishes it could have been done years ago.

"Our ranks are really thinning," he said. "There aren't many of us left."

The number of Pearl Harbor survivors are even fewer. Blake estimated there are only two or three left in Wichita.

Original plans called for the dedication for the WW II memorial to be Dec. 7, the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But out of respect for a regularly scheduled ceremony on that date for the survivors, Blake said he's aiming for a dedication a few days before Dec. 7.

"It's the right thing to do," he said.

And that, after all, is what the memorials symbolize.