Veterans Shrine and Museum finding new ways to respect and remember all who serve
Established in 1952 when Eric and Cleo Scott first bought the property and moved to Fort Wayne from Chicago, the 40-acre Veterans National Memorial Shrine and Museum on O’Day Road remained underdeveloped, except for a couple of rickety structures, a small monument, and a rough gravel parking lot.
That was until 2017, when its current board of directors brought attention to the all-volunteer organization and its mission with the installation of a permanent Vietnam War Wall.
WBOI’s Julia Meek spoke with Vice Commander Eric Johnson, a Vietnam War veteran, about the launching of such an ambitious campaign, including the impact this project directly made on the group’s future, new ways that are being found to better serve the community and the importance of its primary commitment: “No veteran will ever be forgotten.”
Veterans National Memorial Shrine & Museum
2122 O'Day Road, Fort Wayne
11:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Monday, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday
Find more information and become involved at the Veterans National Memorial Shrine & Museum website.
Below is a transcript of our conversation:
Julia Meek: Eric Johnson, welcome.
Eric Johnson: I'm glad to be here, Julia.
Julia Meek: Now, you and yours have been building a proper veterans shrine and museum on that 40 acre tract since 1952. That's quite a commitment. Would you remind us of those three objectives that define your commitment?
Eric Johnson: The three objectives we've always had was that "no veteran will ever be forgotten". And when Eric and Cleo Scott first bought the property and moved to Fort Wayne from Chicago, he was a mason by trade.
And so when their farmhouse burnt down, soon after they moved on to the property, he built a garage, lived in the garage, and then finished building the museum and the apartment on the very front of it, and live there for the rest of their lives.
That being the commitment, "no veteran will be forgotten" was his mantra. And that has become our mantra at the Veterans National Memorial Shrine & Museum today.
The second is to educate the next generation about the war in the history of wars. And if you've made mistakes in the past, they're sure to be repeated at the rate they're going today. So educating next generation of kids.
Third, military artifacts are all donated by ex-G.I.s, veterans, people that bring them in. Right now, we're not even accepting artifacts, because we have so many to go through from the last year. But if we can display them in a manner that's respectful, but also educate all visitors and make sure all wars are represented in our museum.
Julia Meek: Sharing everything with everyone, it truly is?
Eric Johnson: Oh, no question.
Julia Meek: So those 40 acres that you are working with are developing well, in these just over 70 years, really, really gaining momentum here lately. What did it take to kickstart it all back then?
Eric Johnson: The current board of directors about 2017 came in, there was a lien on the building, they hadn't paid the electric bill or the water bill or whatever. We had sewage problems backing up.
This board of directors was really key. There were several Vietnam veterans on the board, a Korean veteran on the board. And it took a group of people that had the passion to say, Okay, this has got to stop, we've got to start over.
Okay, we had already installed the Vietnam Monument in the back of a lot. We had built a watchtower in the late 80s that was reminiscent of the watchtower that was in the base camps over in Vietnam.
And we had a couple of monuments, a Korean Monument, a monument to Eric Scott, the Founders Monument, and a couple other small monuments and we thought, gee whiz, we need to really work on this.
And when I got involved, another Vietnam veteran asked me to get involved because he says, we need help marketing. I said, well, number one, we need to build the brand. We need a new logo, we need everything. And so it's like starting from scratch in 2019. And ever since then it's taken off like a jet plane.
Julia Meek: Congratulations. And you not only are in the marketing field, Eric, you are from the Vietnam era. What got you personally motivated to take this position that long ago and where has it led you?
Eric Johnson: Well, when I first stopped out there, I said, where's the War Memorial in Fort Wayne, and they said, O'Day Road, and I didn't even know where O'Day Road was. So once I did find it and got out there, I had the same impression most people have is, what is this?
It had an old sign that had a painting on it. And there were two cannons on the property and a bunch of parking lot logs that kept you from driving all over the parking lot. It was a gravel parking lot. The Vietnam monument wasn't even within sight.
And I thought to myself, this is not the proper way to remember the men that a lot of them gave their lives in defense of our country. And I said, we need to clean up our act. So I was encouraged to know that the old museum was being organized. And Robert Thomas, our curator is responsible for a lot of that.
But we just had a bunch of guys on the board that were passionate, Julia, about making things better, leaving a mark. And I think that all started when we got the Vietnam Wall.
Julia Meek: Well, then let's track some of that development. Eric, including the Vietnam War Wall. Beyond the impact it made on your era, belated respect especially, how did it advance your cause and sort of pull things together on that space?
Eric Johnson: When I was involved at the advertising association of Fort Wayne, I went to a convention in Washington, DC, and I went to the Vietnam Wall, and I went at night. And it was overwhelming. Being a veteran of the war, I was almost overcome. It was so hard to even process.
The way it was lit, the many, many, many names on the wall, too many to even think about. It had a profound impact on me. I tried to find the guy's name that I replaced in my unit. And I did and found his panel and did a rubbing and you know, it stuck with me.
And when I came to Fort Wayne, another Vietnam veteran says, Hey, why don't you get involved. We need help out at the Shrine. I says you guys need a lot of help, but one of the things we all decided was, we need something that draws people to this location. I mean, we had a pavilion, we had an old museum and that was it. It really wasn't much to talk about, even though we did have the Vietnam monument.
Everybody thought well, you guys are Vietnam vets, all you're doing is worrying about Vietnam. No, we're not. We're trying to bring a legacy here in town of what we stood for so when we got contacted by an outfit in Texas, they were retiring a traveling wall. And the traveling wall was an 80% replica of the original wall in D.C.
And so we negotiated with him to get the wall. We got the financial backing, which we needed to buy the wall, and then we had to get the wall up. And what we decided was everyone has seen a traveling wall, it's temporary, it's up for a week you go see it and then they take it down, and we decided we couldn't have that; it had to be permanent.
And if it's going to be 80%, the height of the one in D.C. which was 8-feet tall, 360-feet long, had 58,000 names on it, I says, we need to display it in a way that's fitting not only for the guys on the wall, our brothers who sacrifice their lives but also to make it lasting legacy in Fort Wayne. So we got a hold of Mark Hagerman.
Believe it or not his best friend from IU was killed in Vietnam and Mark felt a passion to help us, and he says you guys are gonna have to put this on a concrete pad, you're gonna have to have concrete walls. Then it got magnified and then it was like, holy smokes! We had no idea this is what it was going to entail. So once we got Hagerman's help, once we got Doug McKibben's help, who helped us purchase the wall, then we took off.
We broke ground in November of 2020 on Veterans Day, and by May 15, 2021 the wall was up. It was finished, it was ready to be dedicated. We had over 2,500 people in two days visit the wall. We had Huey helicopters come in from Peru, Indiana. They actually took people on rides in helicopters. We booked 40 some flights in two days with six people going at a time.
It was a tremendous hit. It was everything we thought it could be which was "let's bring notoriety to 2122 O'Day Road". People will remember that's where the wall was. And that really jettisoned us in awareness, number one, but, number two, paid tribute to all these Vietnam guys that never made it home.
Julia Meek: Congratulations.
Eric Johnson: Oh, thank you. It's a joy. It really is.
Julia Meek: So from then to now, this last year has, well it's exploded out there at the shrine, there's no doubt about it. What have you done out there this year?
Eric Johnson: Well this year was all kicked off by the opening of our new 6,000-square foot museum. W. Paul Wolf was taking a tour from the Towne House Retirement Community. He had his Korean hat on. So I walked up to him we struck up a conversation and his wife Carolyn was with him.
There were probably 30 people on the bus and they came inside the museum. And Carolyn made mention that "gee, you guys don't really have much room in here." And we didn't, it was 2,400-square feet. Plus, we call it the Torpedo Room, which was another 1,300-square feet that had a giant torpedo in it and a bunch of artifacts hanging on the wall.
So he said, "you know, I'd be interested in maybe helping you guys move a project forward." And so he did--made a substantial donation and said "I'd like to have my name on the building when you build it." And I said we can do that.
So we dedicated that W. Paul Wolf War History Museum in May, Memorial Day weekend this past year, to great kudos from the community and veterans alike.
We added a porch on the side of it with handicapped picnic tables, which make it easy for disabled veterans to get in and out of a picnic table. We've had lunches out there. We've had gatherings out there. We've had visitors from out of town, bring a lunch and have it at the picnic table.
We now have a 6,000-square foot building, ADA bathroom and we even have a coffee lounge where people can have a cup of coffee, veterans can sit around and discuss (share) war stories as they will and it's been a tremendous hit. Our traffic counts increase every weekend, it seems like. We're open four days a week, Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
But what really put us on the map besides the museum was the Korean War monument which was just dedicated on Veterans Day this year. There's 12 seven-foot tall statues of Korean veterans and when Paul Wolf came to me one day and he said "can we do something like this?" And he showed me a picture of the Washington D.C. statues.
We did a little research, figured out it took $22 million to put that display together in DC. They're all stainless steel, and they were all designed by Frank Gaylord out of Vermont. We decided well, we can't copycat that but what we can do. I hooked up with LeAnn Powers, the designer at IPFW that put together the Mastodons on Parade 20 years ago, and we did some research and we found a company that could actually make these fiberglass soldiers as we wanted them to be.
So we photographed several models with actual Korean outfits, weapons, backpacks, minesweepers. But the key point was our other vice commander, Pat Frazier, said wouldn't it be cool if we could put faces of local veterans on the statues? D.C. had 19 figures. We have 12, but each one of ours is in a different position, coming back from a patrol, there's one guy helping another guy that's injured.
And we documented all these people, did interviews with all the soldiers that we had statues made of and today, eight of the twelve guys were at the ceremony, four had passed. Most Korean veterans are in their early 90s now so it wasn't soon enough to get this display and this monument together but I'll tell you what, it's now lit at night until 9:30 p.m.
And it's fantastic to see the structures in all their glory and bigger than life. Most of them are 7 1/2-feet tall. It's almost haunting.
You know, they call it the Forgotten War. It lasted three years one of the most horrible conflicts that we'd ever been involved in weather wise and bloody terrible, terrible wars. We lost 54,000 men. That's 4,000 less than Vietnam. So when they say that it's a forgotten war, we wanted to make sure it will never be the Forgotten War, because now we have personalized it with guys who actually fought there and are from Northeast Indiana.
Julia Meek: What a magnificent gesture all the way around?
Eric Johnson: Oh, unbelievable!
Julia Meek: As well as a point of pride for our entire community.
Eric Johnson: Oh yes, very much so.
Julia Meek: As a matter of fact, veteran recognition and appreciation, it's certainly overdue. How would you say we compare to other cities our size these days?
Eric Johnson: Well, Bud Mendenhall, who's one of our board members, he's a Korean veteran, he just turned 89 years old, he says, "Eric, there's nothing like this in the state of Indiana."
There's nothing like it in the Midwest, where you have a Vietnam wall, you have a 6,000 square-foot museum. You got a Korean monument. You've got a chapel that's under construction right now.
And you've got a Vietnam monument. And you will soon have more—Civil War, World War II Goldstar Families and a World War II monument that the Ley family is going to sponsor—all of this in one location. There's a lot of museums around the country that have larger displays, more square footage and things like that.
But to be able to visit a property that has so many different wars and conflicts that are being recognized? It's just fantastic.
Julia Meek: And your own major work this year, which is pretty unbelievable, has been complemented, if you will, by the city's Riverfront Memorial Veterans Bridge. With two really righteous statements like this right here in the county, what kind of empowerment does this net the cause that you share?
Eric Johnson: Well, I think all veterans, especially those returning from war...what we forget is when a guy is returning from war, some can move on, others cannot move on. And it's a way to find a purpose after the war years. I mean, they teach you how to kill. They teach you how to maneuver in war. They teach how to stay alive and survive.
But then when you come home, you don't have purpose, you don't have a place to go, you don't, you don't know where to go. And if you have PTSD, you're really lost. We're suffering with 22 suicides a day by veterans, which is a terrible, terrible number. These days, a lot of veterans that returned from war have lost purpose. And what we want to do is we want to help them realize that there is purpose and it did matter what they did.
And I think the Vietnam Wall, the Memorial Bridge, the museum, all of these things, raise the awareness for veterans in such a way that people want to give to veteran causes today, more so than ever. It's like veterans were lost. When they came back for World War II, they had the American Legions.
Now, when the guys come back from war, they don't feel an attachment to the American Legions. And as a group, they need to reach out to people like us where you can come to the shrine, and you can talk to other veterans, and you can share your stories. And you can get help and we'll lead you in the right direction.
But with the wall, and with the Memorial Bridge, and with now the museum, it just brings Fort Wayne up to a different level as far as serving veterans.
Julia Meek: And do you find with the facilities being so user friendly, and so inclusive and so accessible, that the activities and the support groups are also growing to fit the needs and make a difference with the folks that frequent that part of it?
Eric Johnson: Oh yeah. We have a support group every Monday night at 5:30, where guys can come talk to other veterans and talk to counselors. They've been there, they've done that, and they can help them maneuver the landscape that they live in every day.
Service dogs, we've helped raise money for service dogs. And what service dogs do, and if you know more about what they go through to get a license to have a service dog, it's amazing, and the work that they're doing, and the work that we're doing.
We even have a spousal group on Saturdays, first Saturday of the month, where wives and girlfriends can come out and talk to Tim Shield, who's a certified counselor. And we think this is monumental and we want to grow that part of our service.
Julia Meek: And now before we talk about what's next for all you people out there on O'Day Road, how much space do you have left to fill?
Eric Johnson: (chuckles) Well, we got 40 acres, Julia. And I would say maybe a third of that is taken up right now with monuments and exhibits and the museum. But we don't want to forget about the causes of the guys just coming back.
I mean, everybody talks about oh, yeah, you're a Vietnam vet, and you got the Vietnam Wall and then your museum. But the museum covers all wars and the Korean exhibit covers Korea. Now we want to get up to date with Iraq and Iraqi Freedom and Iraq Enduring Freedom, their actual service years that were spent over there and also the Desert Storm.
So we don't want to forget about today's current GIs that are coming home. There's going to be three new monuments for that especially.
Julia Meek: And I am curious, when you first laid eyes on that space and took it all in, did you, could you ever dream all of this dream would be a reality?
Eric Johnson: I had no idea. To be honest with you, I thought getting a parking lot and the pavement would be a big step forward. (laughs) And we've gone beyond that, so far! The people that come out there, Julia, to be honest with you, if they haven't been there in less three or five years, they cannot believe what they're seeing.
And they go tell their friends and their family and their relatives and bring more people back. I've seen people from Idaho, I've talked to people from California and New York, Ohio. I met a guy at the wall one day, and he was from Ohio and he was visiting his brother because he hadn't been to the wall, (in) Washington, D.C. but it was closer to drive from Dayton here.
He came over and spent the afternoon and it gives you a lot of closure if you're a family member and have someone on the wall that you were very close to. They call it a healing wall. But somebody in New York trademarked that so we couldn't use that. But I said it doesn't matter. It is a healing wall for many.
And after you've been there, I think you'll agree that it's pretty phenomenal and amazing and the neat thing is people can come back over and over and over and never feel like they've been there too many times.
Julia Meek: And now that all of this is reality, wonderful, unbelievable reality that it is, what's next up immediately on your drawing board?
Eric Johnson: Well, the Gold Star Families Monument is the Woody Wilson Foundation. Woody Wilson was the last Medal of Honor winner from World War II. And his foundation is putting together the what they call Gold Star Families monuments.
They're 16-feet long, 6-foot high black granite, and the Marine Corps League here has raised $150,000 to bring this monument to Fort Wayne. It's unbelievable. We hope to dedicate that next March.
After that we'll have the World War II monument, the Ley family from Avila, who runs a monument company up there and they want to sponsor World War II monument. So we've already poured the pad on that and poured the pad on the Gold Stars and the completion of the Sterling Chapel, which is now under construction and should be done in the spring.
Julia Meek: And Wish List? What would you add that we couldn't even start talking about yet otherwise?
Eric Johnson: Well, one of these days we're going to need a bigger museum. (chuckles). So I see a museum expansion down the road. Right now specifically, we need a storage building where we can store all our golf carts that we run the people back and forth to the wall, back and forth visitors around the monuments.
But we've got needs for equipment. We need a tractor with a bucket loader on the front and a bush hog on the back that we can clear weeds and areas out amongst the 40 acres. We've got to reseal the parking lot and make sure that's done correctly. Plus, we've got to add sidewalks out there to all these monuments, and that's quite a bit of cost.
But in our wish list, we're gonna get this done. There are just needs that we have. As you grow, we have growing pains, but you know what, we're going to stick with it. We've got a lot of funding coming in right now, year end, people leaving donations and things like that. S o we're very excited about the future.
Julia Meek: Sounds like your sources and resources are good, and you're never at a loss for ideas. Now, okay, Eric, you're a vet, you're committed, obviously to remembering every war, every veteran, you and yours have the passion to get this done. From your perspective, why is that critical? Can you express what it means to you? What a difference it makes?
Eric Johnson: When you talk to guys that served in Vietnam, any war, there's a brotherhood. Immediately, there's a camaraderie and brotherhood amongst all veterans. I was there. I did it. I survived. We made it home. And there's so many that didn't. And so many that don't. We do that for them.
I know five guys from Southside High School that are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. And I go by their names and I look at them. And I think about the days that I was in the Boy Scouts with this guy. I was in high school with this guy. And I just think "I'm 75 years old. They never made it past their early 20s."
That's what gives me the passion and the drive to keep this thing going. I do it for those guys. We all do it for those guys and we feel very close to the fact that when you meet their families, that's when it really accelerates to a different level because they're trying to deal with their loss. It's personal. It's that kind of passion that drives us and continues to drive us.
Julia Meek: It's singular, and something incredibly special. And as your work continues to forward at the Shrine, what do you want everyone in the community to know about it and what it represents to them and their community?
Eric Johnson: I think once they come out and see the property, visit the museum, visit the wall, visit the Korean Monument and the Civil War Monuments that we just installed in September, they'll realize that this is a hidden gem in Fort Wayne and bring young people out to it and now they know.
Our ultimate goal is to make sure today's youth are drawn in and learn from this. And we learn that war is never any good. It never accomplishes anything. It's criminal what's happening today in the world, and it shouldn't be happening. I pray to God every day that we can end warm whether it's in Israel, Gaza, Ukraine, wherever it's taking place.
We're killing innocent lives. We're wiping out a generation of people for no reason. I'm not real political, neither is the Shrine. But I think after being at war, and you see the effects of war, nothing good ever comes from it. I can tell you that.
When you talk to veterans, and you talk to their families, it's all about loss. This helps diffuse that a little bit. And the spirit that they have, even after losing a loved one is wonderful, and they commend us for doing what we do. But you know, it gives me a lot of, I guess, closure that even though I did survive, and someone else didn't, I want to pay back a little bit and pay it forward.
And this is the way that we can do it. I mean, I've been retired for eight years in January. And if I didn't have this to do I don't know what I would have done. Julia, you know, you can't sit in a La-Z-Boy and watch TV. You got to be active. You got to stay motivated when you're in your 70's.
And I think this is a way that I can stay active. I can stay committed. I got purpose. Every day is a new day at the shrine. And my mission is to continue to promote it, raise funds, talk to people spread our passion to other people. So they'll come out they can see what we've done and enjoy what we've done and benefit from it.
Julia Meek: Eric Johnson is vice commander, Veterans National Memorial Shrine and Museum. Eric, it's an honor to share your story. Continued blessings, and do carry the gift.
Eric Johnson: Thank you for having us on. We do appreciate it and wish all your listeners Happy Holidays and a great New Year. Be safe and stay well.