Paved with memories

Some veterans gave all. All gave some. And thanks to the driving force of two dedicated Arlington men, the city has a unique memorial to honor and remember those who have served. Arlington’s Veterans Walking Path of Honor in Memorial Park is the well-designed creation and long-lasting salute to living and deceased veterans by co-founders Elroy “Blackie” Schwirtz and Arden Kreft. Located along Highway 5 in Arlington, the Walking Path of Honor has a mission statement that is readily evident to all visitors who find it to “provide a place of memories for veterans and their families from all of America’s wars and peacetime service.” The memorial is situated on city land that was donated by H.M. Noack and Sons who were one of the largest producers of food items like dry milk, powdered eggs, chickens and turkeys for soldiers in WW II. When the original flag pole monument built in 1976 needed repair, Schwirtz and Kreft presented a plan about 10 years ago to build the Veterans Walking Path of Honor as part of the reconstruction project. “We thought that rather than just replace the flag pole monument, why not do something more elaborate to remember all veterans,” Schwirtz recalled. Himself a veteran, Schwirtz had an intense interest in seeing the Walking Path of Honor become a reality. He was a combat Marine with the 1st Marine Division in Korea and also served in Vietnam as commander of an Army Reserve unit based in Winthrop that was activated in 1968. As commander of the 452nd General Supply Company, Schwirtz led the unit of 216 men to Vietnam from Sept. 1968 – Aug. 1969. While in Vietnam, most of the soldiers in the unit helped operate a supply base near Da Nang. The unit served with distinction having received 18 Bronze Stars, 60 Army Commendation Medals and several Army Certificates of Merit. Schwirtz, who began his military career in 1947, finished 31 years of total service achieving the rank of Army Major. “Arden, who was the mayor of Arlington for many years, also was the American Legion commander and provided great public service leadership,” explained Schwirtz. “He more or less dragged me into this project as I also was active in the VFW and have been commander for the last 13 years. So, together this has been a big part of our lives the past dozen years but I’m glad he asked me to step out there and take the lead for this project and now Arlington has a veterans memorial that it can be proud of for many years to come,” he noted. With a pledge of $10,000 from the VFW and Legion, nearly a $25,000 loan from the city, $10,000 in advance name granite paver sales plus an additional $20,000 from the Robert and Margaret Major Fund, startup work began on the Walking Path of Honor in 2004. Schwirtz patterned the layout design after another memorial he’d seen and the Walking Path of Honor was born. It currently includes 671 veterans paver names with an estimated available space of 50 more or about 720 total. Although local veterans are well represented on pavers, eligibility is open to any veteran from anywhere. The cost to purchase a 16”x8”x3” granite paver is $200, which is tax deductible. Any branch of military including reservists and members of the National Guard are eligible. The Walking Path of Honor was designed to include an Army Cobra helicopter that found its final resting place in the mid 1990s on top of a pedestal at Memorial Park. The 44-foot long chopper, was shot down in Vietnam, restored and later sent to Germany. The Cobra was transported to Arlington with the assistance of the 452nd Army Reserve Quartermaster Supply Company who at the time was getting a M-48 tank from Ft. McCoy, WI to put on display in Winthrop. “When we took the tank’s night vision and excess equipment back to Ft. McCoy, we visited a Cobra helicopter unit that was stationed there for training,” said Schwirtz. “They were replacing the Cobra with a newer version and we inquired about how to obtain this one.” The Winthrop unit was able to provide a 5-ton tractor and low-boy as part of a training exercise and traveled to an airfield in Madison, WI. There, the group disabled the Cobra, loaded it and transported it back to Arlington for reassembly. “Dick Luepke, who was a mechanic, manufactured a min-gun look alike that was missing for the Cobra and the steel support base for the chopper which is mounted on a concrete pedestal at the park,” explained Schwirtz. He pointed out that the Cobra restoration project couldn’t have been completed without a lot of great work done by many generous, talented people donating time and energy. With the helicopter secured in place and flag monument restored, Schwirtz’s plan for the memorial called for two black granite markers at the entrance etched with WW II scenes of the Normandy invasion and the flag raising on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima. As visitors walk along a concrete path, granite pavers with the veterans name, branch of military and service time are located on either side. Continuing along visitors see all branches of the military etched in black granite markers and brass plaques which are attached to the concrete circular flag pedestal. These plaques give casualty information starting with the Civil War through the Persian Gulf War with room for future additions. Also there are plaques for Pearl Harbor and 9-11. Another black granite monument is located in the memorial to memorialize the USS Sibley that received two battle stars in WW II during Pacific Island invasions. The ship carried about 3,000 soldiers and crew. It was named to honor Sibley County (where Arlington is located) for the record number of war bond sales of nearly $6 million sold from 1942-45. The ship was built and commissioned in June, 1944. Schwirtz sent a letter to the Navy Historical Center in Washington, DC with the hope of obtaining the Sibley’s bell to ring each Memorial Day for those killed in action but was unsuccessful. “We found out the original bell on the Sibley had been lost when the ship was junked out,” said Schwirtz. “However, the bell we have at our memorial is a replica of the USS Sibley provided to us by the son of the ship captain.” Visitors then come to another path outlined with more veteran pavers in front of the Cobra helicopter followed by a circular brick patio inscribed with the motto, “We were young then, don’t forget us now.” Surrounding the patio are six statues modeled after soldiers and an Army nurse who served in the five branches of the military. The concrete bronze-colored statues, added in 2008, were produced by a company that Schwirtz located in Sioux Falls, SD. “All of the statues are life size dressed in replica uniforms from the period in time that they served,” Schwirtz explained. A soothing touch to the memorial is the sound of a Dog Tag wind chime that hangs underneath the Cobra helicopter. “It was built by Luepke who saw a similar display on one of his travels…he manufactured the bracket and hanging hooks for the dog tags,” Schwirtz commented. “Families can donate the dog tags of veterans to hang on the hooks but since Vietnam, vets are reluctant to do it because the tags have social security numbers on them. Before that, dog tags just had the name, rank and serial number stamped on them but we found a place that can do reproductions of tags without putting the social security numbers on them,” he added. Some of the notable names on the granite pavers is one purchased for veteran Navy fighter pilot Captain Charles F. Burlingame III of civilian Flight AA 77, which crashed into the Pentagon on 9-11. “The pilot’s mother was a school mate of mine and when Capt. Burlingame was a kid he used to often visit his grandfather who was an officer in a bank here in Arlington,” explained Schwirtz. “The pilot’s aunt was a school mate of mine too and she bought the paver for him.” Schwirtz said the Walking Path of Honor also has a paver for Bradley Klukas from Gibbon. “He was killed in action fighting with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1969,” said Schwirtz. “His name is here because the 11-month-old daughter who never knew her dad grew up and years later along with her mother decided to purchase one of the pavers in his honor,” noted Schwirtz. “Another interesting veteran that has a paver is for a WW II soldier who was an underwater tank driver on the landing crafts that hit the beaches on D-Day,” said Schwirtz. “Another paver has a woman’s name on it who was employed by the Department of Army who became a WW II POW in the Philippines. The paver for her and many other heroes are here but we don’t necessarily have information for what these people did while in service yet they all have their own story to tell and may only be known to them,” he said. Schwirtz said the pavers also don’t have the ranks of soldiers listed. “You could have a general right next to a private because all who served our country whether in peacetime or war are important,” he said. Schwirtz believes many of the pavers have been purchased for Korean veterans and he keeps records of all who bought a paver, the veterans name, war or peacetime service record and the row it’s located in along with paver number at the memorial. “When we first started this effort, we were getting about 200 pavers sold per year but now we’re down to about 25,” said Schwirtz. “We’re pretty well covered from the surrounding communities and we just want people to know there’s room for some more,” he added. Pavers ordered before July 1 are installed by Veterans Day. Orders received after July 1 will be installed by Memorial Day of the following year. “We’ll be adding 21 new ones this year,” he noted. The Veterans Walking Path of Honor was dedicated in 2006 and Schwirtz is proud of the fact that the loan from the city was repaid and that no county, state or federal tax dollars were required to support the project. All funding comes from the veterans themselves through the purchase of the granite pavers and volunteer donations. To date, Schwirtz estimates the memorial project has cost nearly $750,000 to build. According to Kreft, the third and final phase of the memorial will be the addition of pathway lighting for night visits. The Walking Path of Honor has a visitors log resting at the entrance and it shows that within the past year alone, people have registered from states all across the country and also Europe as travelers along Highway 5 have stopped. Schwirtz and Kreft are both over 80 years old and understandably pleased with the Walking Path of Honor achievement for the community. “Yes, we were the co-founders but we’re reluctant to take full credit for it…something this size takes the commitment and contributions of many people to make this possible,” Schwirtz stated. Persons interested in making a donation for an engraved granite paver can write to: Veterans Walking Path of Honor, P.O. Box 451, Arlington, MN 55307. Questions can be directed to co-founders Elroy Schwirtz at 507-964-2787 or 507-381-8320 or to Arden Kreft at 507-964-5359 or 507-964-2401.

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