The new Veterans Memorial Plaza at McCormick Park in St. Helens, which honors veterans across Columbia County lost in wars, is now open after an official dedication ceremony on Nov. 1 at 12 p.m.
The dedication ceremony had two goals: to celebrate the completion of the project, and to recognize the partnerships between VFW Post 1440, businesses, government entities and community members who helped support the new plaza.
Names of more than 150 men are listed on the memorial, which has been improved and expanded from the original. The former memorial, dedicated in 1958 and originally located along Highway 30 at Columbia Boulevard, had wooden plaques with hand-carved named of veterans engraved on top. Some plaques on the former memorial were lost during the widening of the highway and had to be replaced.
The new memorial includes all the names that were missing, as well as additional ones discovered through research. It also has a bigger footprint, a new covered area to provide additional seating options during inclement weather, and additional names of servicemen who died in World War I, World War II and Korea. There is also now an additional plaque to honor those lost in more recent conflicts, like Vietnam and the Middle East.
Approximately 50 people attended the dedication ceremony. They heard from six people from various groups who collaborated on the project either financially or through other contributions about the work that took place to make it happen.
Jenny Dimsho, City of St. Helens Associate Planner, spoke about the two major design shifts that happened mid-way through the designing and planning phase. Dimsho secured the $46,770 grant from the Oregon Parks & Recreation Veterans & War Memorials Grant Program that made the project possible. The project was also offered an additional $48,000 grant by the VFW Post 1440, which sparked one of the design shifts. Another shift happened when site preparation led the city to more than double the size of the memorial, enabling the wall to incorporate existing monuments of names of soldiers.
Projects funded by state grants must be done on a certain timeline, which made the design changes more challenging to incorporate, Dimsho explained.
“We had a deadline and I was really worried that these changes were going to get in the way of meeting our requirements,” Dimsho said. “Fortunately, I was able to rely on the flexibility of our project team at the city and our project partners to make that happen.”
One of the project partners was Lower Columbia Engineering. Andrew Niemi, Principal Engineer, spoke about the top priority the project made of restoring the wooden slabs of engraved names on the monument. 10 years ago, Niemi said, someone had pointed out to him that several of the original wood slabs on the first monument had gone missing after the widening of Highway 30.
“She showed me pictures of some of the men who built the slabs to honor their fallen comrades,” Niemi said. “We had to somehow give that back to those guys and honor those individuals who have served so diligently.”
Not wanting to make any mistakes in researching the names, Niemi outsourced that part of the project to Brandon Sundeen, a local historian and member of the Columbia County Museum Association (CCMA) board of directors.
Sundeen said he started researching names two years ago.
“My goal was to make sure that everybody that has earned the right to be memorialized here, that their name would be found here,” Sundeen said. “I’ve spent many hours scouring archives and visiting cemeteries and going through old newspaper pages. It’s been worth every minute.”
Six missing names from World War I have been added, as well as 36 for World War II, 12 for Vietnam, and four for the conflicts in the Middle East. There are blank spaces still on the memorial, room for any other fallen soldiers who are later discovered. Sundeen said he is not sure that he has found all names of Columbia County soldiers who were lost in wars.
Gene Hester, judge advocate for VFW Post 1440 also spoke, saying at the beginning of the project, he knew names needed to be updated on the memorial to include people from Vietnam and Middle Eastern conflicts. He spoke about the collaboration that was necessary between VFW Post 1440, Lower Columbia Engineering and the city to update the memorial.
“It has been a lot of meetings and a lot of work. We could not have had a better team of people and I am honored that I had an opportunity to be on this team,” Hester said.
Hester said the monument is a work in progress, and spoke about additional changes in store, one in particular that will honor military families.
He himself has lost a son in a war and has another son about to be deployed.
“I know what the stresses are and what families and their children go through,” Hester said.
Seven podiums will be installed at the monument at a later date, with one of the podiums honoring what service personnel families endure, Hester said. The other six podiums will represent one of the six branches of service: Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force and Merchant Marines. Each plaque will have a flag of the service branch and will include information describing the branch and their mission and history. The podiums will be located in the area between the shelter and the new wall, Hester explained, and will require between $10,000 to $15,000 to complete.
“Just like the development of this new Veterans Memorial, we are somehow going to make this happen,” Hester said.
The new Veterans Memorial Plaza will be used for larger veterans’ ceremonies in the future. One of its first events will be a Veterans Day recognition ceremony on Nov. 11.
Overall, project leaders seemed pleased with their work.
Niemi said about the finished project, “If you ever have the opportunity to come down here at nighttime and see it when it’s lit up, it’s just spectacular.”