I gave a student group the topic to track down how World War I is remembered in Milwaukee and to my enjoyment he opened my eyes to this fascinating flag pole on Milwaukee’s lake front. Click here for the student group’s Soundcloud audio project.
On June 14, 1979, the remaining World War I veterans in Milwaukee gathered to rededicate a memorial flag pole. A newspaper reported two of the surviving veteran reactions. One said, “That flagpole is a tribute to the veterans of World War 1. The flag… it’s in our hearts.” Another commented, “It gives us goose bumps. Our flag is carried on sticks by little kids.”Those two veterans stood near the flag pole’s current location at the southwest corner of Juneau Park (Prospect & Lincoln Memorial Drive).
Ground for the memorial at its original location was broken August 1, 1934 and dedicated a few months later on a triangular piece of grass at the intersection of Plankinton, 2nd & Wells Streets. There was considerable debate over what design should be used to remember Milwaukee’s WWI participants. The Service Star Legion, an organization of veteran’s mothers, first planted a “perpetual” 20 foot floral star in a Milwaukee park in 1921. Later they raised $6,000.00 and hoped for a more permanent statue of a US Army doughboy. Other city officials dreamed up a tree lined boulevards and even a Performing Arts Center complex to serve as living reminders of the war. Debate over cost of a PAC and fear that a soldier was “too militaristic” whittled down these hopes to the current flag pole. Still, it is very impressive if you take time, as my children and I did today, to view its details and read its message. As noted above, it clearly was appreciated by the veterans.
As a part of a city-wide commemoration to the famous MacArthur family in 1979, Milwaukee decided to move the flag pole to its current location near the Veterans Memorial Center along the lakefront. (Coincidentally, a monument dedicated to Douglass MacArthur in 1979 will be moved to the Veteran’s Memorial Center later this year.) It was at the nearby reflection pool behind the Memorial Center, in 1977, where WWI veterans got into a fascinating altercation with Vietnam veterans and anti-war protesters on Armistice Day. They proved how much the flag and memory of America’s role in war still meant to them 59 years later. A newspaper reported that during a special unveiling of mosaics above the Memorial Center’s reflection pool, protesters shouted “To hell with their national honor, we won’t be used again.” Vietnam veterans tore up their military discharge papers and threw them in the water. The WWI veterans who averaged 80 years in age, moved in formation and blocked the protesters from view of the event’s patriotic spectators. The old doughboys then got into “a little tugging” with those veterans who were trying to throw debris in the reflection pool and later fished out all of the paper that managed to fall in the water during the ceremony’s fracas.
I hope this story helps us remember the sacrifice and patriotism, during this centenary commemoration of the war, which has largely been forgotten. It also raises questions about how to remember wars. Would a Doughboy statue have been better at keeping the memory of World War I veterans alive in Milwaukee? How many Milwaukee residents know that the current Marcus Center for the Performing Arts carried out the hopes of those in the 1930s and is a living memorial to Milwaukee’s veterans?