There is a story behind every brick.
That was one of the messages that hundreds of people heard Saturday at a ceremony dedicating the World War II monument along the Arkansas River near downtown. Each of the hundreds of bricks surrounding the new monument in Veterans Memorial Park bears the name of someone who served in the war.
There is a story behind four bricks – side by side – bearing the last name Gonzalez. Four Gonzalez brothers from Newton – Jose, Daniel, Carmen, Doroteo – served in the European or Pacific theaters of the war.
Jose, now 88, came to the ceremony with his wife, Elsie, and son Rolando. Jose, who served from 1943 to 1945, once ran into his brother Doroteo in New Guinea during the war. Jose 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 remembers the sounds of ricocheting bullets. The installations were common targets of Japanese bombing.
“I’m one of the lucky ones to come back,” he said.
And there is a story behind another brick in Row 13, two bricks from the right. It says: “Cpl T5 Thomas L. Gripe.” Gripe served from 1942 to 1945 with a signal air warning unit in the Pacific.
The story behind his brick comes from his 84-year-old widow, Rogene Gripe, who wasn’t able to attend Saturday’s ceremony but told her story to a reporter by phone. It was 1943, and Rogene was a 16-year-old clerk at a downtown Wichita drug store when a customer gave her a dollar bill with writing on it: a name of a soldier and a Florida address.
On a whim, Rogene wrote to the soldier who put his name, Thomas Gripe, on the dollar bill. She and Thomas started corresponding. While on leave from his unit, he came from his home in Pawnee, Okla., to meet her and her family in January 1944.
“That’s the first time we met, and I only saw him three days, and then he had to leave,” she remembers.
“We were very crazy about each other the first time we saw each other. I liked his personality and his looks.”
For two years while Thomas was gone in the war, they carried on a relationship by letters.
All these years later, she keeps the letters in a pillow case.
She still marvels at their fate.
“I met him through his dollar bill,” which somehow ended up in her hand in the drug store.
“What a dollar bill can buy,” she said.
They got married the day after he got back from the war.
They had four children and had been married almost 50 years when he died in 1995.