DADE CITY — The once-wooden walls are now granite, the names of each of the 1,857 veterans etched in the smooth stone to ensure they are never forgotten.
An octagonal World War II memorial that for 60 years was protected by Plexiglas is now restored, thanks to Pasco County community leaders who couldn't bear to see the heroic efforts of the Greatest Generation honored on a crumbling wall.
"It's beautiful," said Carl Gude, a longtime resident and project donor. "They did a marvelous job on it." The memorial includes the names of Gude's brothers: Florian, who recently turned 90, and Army staff Sgt. Leonard Gude, who died at age 23 after being hit with shrapnel at a place in France dubbed Bloody Hill. His unit was part of the D-Day invasion. Carl Gude also has four cousins listed, including Louis Rachel, who was killed in action.
The original memorial was put up on the sides of a bandstand built in 1925 to entice the return of band leader John Philip Sousa, who had previously visited Pasco. He never did, but the bandstand was used for civic events. In 1954, leaders put up 14 wood panels on the sides with hand-painted names of the county's World War II veterans.
The restoration project began taking shape about a year ago when retired Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson, a former Marine born three years after World War II ended, and then-County Commission Secretary Carol Logue, became concerned about the memorial's deterioration.
Time, heat, rain and more recently, skateboarders, had taken their toll. Some of the panels were cracked. Parts of names had disappeared. The panels had become so brittle that when a new name needed to be added, not a single painter was willing to make the attempt.
"We would not have anything if it weren't for them," Johnson said of the troops who faced down the Axis powers threatening to take over the world.
The effort raised slightly more than $12,000 in private donations, and Pasco County and Dade City government leaders offered matches. The total cost was $27,000, about $21,000 under original estimates. Donations from families, as well as banks and civic groups, brought the project to full funding, according to County Commission secretary Mary Lecznar.
Though money came in easily, one issue proved to be a sensitive: what to do with the names of the African-American veterans. In 1954, builders relegated them to two separate panels. The word "colored" was painted at the top. (It was painted over in 1968.)
After consulting those veterans' family members as well as local African-American leaders, organizers decided the names should stay put rather than be inserted alphabetically. But a new marker will go up with an explanation of race relations during that era.
"I don't think we need to correct something that symbolizes that era," said Imani Asukile, president of the African-American Heritage Society of East Pasco County.
He said that when the memorial was dedicated in 1954, it had been only six years since President Harry Truman signed an executive order integrating the armed forces.
Changing the memorial now, he said, "won't change the issues of race that continue in our national conversation."
The Rev. Nathaniel Sims, president of the Pasco NAACP, took a different view, saying the names should have been alphabetized.
"It's a new day," he said. "Progress has been made. Vets are vets."
Johnson admitted the reactions were mixed but said he felt at peace over the decision.
"I feel really good about it," said Johnson, whose wife's uncle was killed in Holland in 1944 and who has other relatives who served. "The new memorial will stand for more than 60 years. We even added a couple of names we didn't know about."
County Commissioner Ted Schrader, whose office is in the historic courthouse behind the memorial and an early supporter of the project, said he hopes for a good turnout at the June 14 re-dedication. That would be Flag Day, exactly 60 years after the original dedication.
"I hope many others will join me on that day to remember those who without hesitation left behind their loving families, not knowing if they would return from this disruption in their lives," Schrader said. "They were truly a part of America's greatest generation."