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WWII vets, supporters celebrate memorial’s completion

World War II ended more than 70 years ago, but the memories are still fresh for Fred Simon.

“I still remember everything,” Simon said. “I remember every foxhole I was in and every gun that jammed. I remember every good buddy I had and every good buddy I lost.”

Simon – the namesake of Wichita-based chain Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers – was one of the veterans honored Sunday during a celebration of the completion of the World War II memorial in Veterans Memorial Park near downtown.

The completed shrine features more than 1,500 commemorative bricks for area World War II veterans, complete with a directory with each name and brick location. Close to 300 people flocked to the banks of the Arkansas River on a warm, sunny spring afternoon Sunday to mark the occasion.

“This concludes more than six years of effort of work and volunteer service,” said Ted Ayres, president of the Board of Directors for World War II Memorial Inc., which was started to support the project. “The original idea was to have one section with 500 bricks, but the response was so overwhelming, we ended up with 1,511 bricks in three different sections.”

The three paths paved with the bricks – which were each bought for $100 – mark veterans’ names, branches of service, theaters of operation and dates of service.

The memorial also features two 6-foot-tall, 8-inch-thick granite panels. The final component for the project was the directory, which was installed in April, Ayres said.

A sergeant in the 1st Cavalry’s 12th Regiment, Simon served in the Pacific during the war and was among the U.S. troops who liberated the Philippines from Japanese occupation.

Simon was one of about a dozen World War II veterans on hand Sunday for the celebration, Ayres said.

“We appreciate things like this,” Simon said. “What was done back then, it sometimes gets forgotten.”

Kayleen Benoit of Wichita was one of the spectators at the ceremony. Her father, 96-year-old Mel Winters, served in the Coast Guard during World War II.

“I’m very proud of my father,” Benoit said, choking back tears. “This celebration makes me very proud – we can’t let these veterans be forgotten.”

Born in the Texas panhandle, Winters said he came to Wichita in 1940, shortly after the war started.

“It was 75 years ago, but things like this make me think back to those days,” Winters said. “I remember the good and the bad. Every once in a while, I still relive those days.”

The memorial project was started by Phil Blake, a World War II veteran and unofficial caretaker of Wichita’s war memorials for nearly two decades until his death in 2014.

Bryan Horwath: 316-269-6708, @bryan_horwath

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