DECATUR — Hundreds of Decatur folks, young and old, large and small and, at least one dog, turned out to salute the members of the Greatest Generation at the dedication of the World War II Memorial in front of the Decatur Civic Center.
World War II veterans were grouped on the civic center theater stage in the spotlight as the ceremony moved indoors Friday to escape the threat of rain. It was standing-room only for the spectators. Robertson Charter School first-graders and second-graders sat on the theater steps.
Among those cheering the speakers was John Kirby, 90, of the 1942 Notre Dame Flying Irish Squadron in the Naval Air Corps during World War II. The late Steve Graliker of Decatur was in the squadron. When Graliker was terminally ill in April, Kirby visited him for 10 days. Now Kirby was back from Kentfield, Calif., as a tribute to Graliker.
Carl Kohlbecker came from Kentucky. He was the best friend of the late E.E. “Pete” Nicholls, the World War II hero who conceived the idea of the memorial more than eight years ago and worked ceaselessly with Gordon Brenner, a Vietnam veteran, to obtain funds before Nicholls died in 2008.
The black granite memorial, 48 feet in diameter and illuminated at night, contains the names of more than 300 Macon County military personnel, Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard, who were killed in World War II. The memorial is dedicated in their honor along with the other members of the Greatest Generation who were in the military and those who supported them on the home front.
“It’s wonderful; it looks much better in person than in the photos,” said Betty Nicholls, Nicholls’ widow.
Pete Nicholls Jr., co-chairman of the memorial committee with David Freyling, said, “It’s unbelievable, it’s finally here, mission accomplished.”
But, would Pete Nicholls approve?
“Yes, he knows,” answered Betty Nicholls.
Don Howe of Warrensburg told Pete Nicholls Jr., “Your Dad is looking down and saying, What a great day.”
As a 19-year-old in the U.S. Army’s 465th Field Artillery unit, Nicholls was on the island of Luzon on May 17, 1945, with two buddies when a Japanese grenade landed in their foxhole. Nicholls tossed his helmet over the grenade. The explosion blew Nicholls into the air. Only the thumb remains on his right hand. He lost two fingers on his left hand. Nicholls received the Silver Star and Bronze Star medals for his actions.
Graham Bradley, a retired Decatur architect, drew cheers when introduced as the original memorial designer. The design was modified several times during the struggle to obtain a site and funds.
Speakers included state Rep. Adam Brown, Nicholls Jr., Larry Foster of the memorial committee, Brenner and William Grieve, the retired Marine Corps colonel and military history teacher. Grieve talked about the book, “The Greatest Generation,” by Tom Brokaw and about books by Ernie Pyle, the famed war correspondent who was killed at the end of World War II.
Before and after the ceremonies, people congregated in the memorial to search for family names and to admire the striking architecture.
Yes, it’s finally here.