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Finding the right site: WWII vet wants WWI plaque closer to public

When Port Arthur citizens dedicated a plaque to honor World War I veterans in 1932, David Williams was but a grade-school boy in his hometown of Corsicana.

The Hamilton Smith Post 797, Veterans of Foreign Wars — that post was named for a Port Arthur warrior who died in “The War to End All Wars” — sponsored the plaque, which was dedicated on May 30, 1932. Herbert Hoover was still president.

Here’s how long ago that was: The plaque’s message honors “The United States Military, Naval, or Marine Forces in the world war …” It didn’t honor the U.S. Air Force because there was none then, specifically. It didn’t reference “World War I” because World War II had not been fought and was not anticipated.

Post commander

But the plaque and those who died in that first, Great War remain precious to Williams, now 94, because 25 years after the dedication in Port Arthur, Williams, a WWII Navy veteran stationed in the Pacific, joined the Hamilton Smith Post here. Two decades after that, he served as post commander.

“It was a big group,” he recollected of the post, which started with a ladies auxiliary in 1928 and has been defunct since 2015. Williams can remember when there were more than 200 members, when “we had bingo going.”

He remembers when the group met downtown and when they moved to a new facility off Procter Street Extension. He was on the building committee. The post bought 10 acres out there and later sold five, he said.

The plaque, presented on granite, once rested where the north gate now stands on the seawall, a stone’s throw from Rose Hill, he said. But the post wanted the marker to follow them to its new post quarters on Main. It rests there now, behind a Chain Link fence, inaccessible to the general public.

In public view

Williams said he’d like to change that, have the monument moved from its current, isolated location back to the seawall. It would make perfect sense, he said. It’s where the plaque might be most easily seen and respected by the public, especially by the multitude of recreational walkers, joggers and cyclists who frequent the seawall for recreation and exercise.

This year would provide perfect timing, as well. World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, when the armistice between the Allied nations and Germany was signed, rendering the Western Front quiet and the war over.  This year marks an even century since the peace.

“The 100th anniversary is something we need to celebrate,” said Port Arthur Mayor Derrick Freeman. “We need to honor those who fell before us and made a way for us to be here today.”

Freeman said he’d be willing to work with Drainage District 7, which has oversight of the seawall, to see if there is a way to move the historic marker back to where it rested, an endeavor he said “would only be right.”

“I would love to be part of moving the monument back, to put it in a place where people can enjoy it.”

Possible site?

Phil Kelley, general manager at DD7, said he would be agreeable to a move to where it would not penetrate levee space and not violate U.S. Corps of Engineer restrictions on the levee.

Kelley said there may be a spot at the end of the boulevard, near the toe of the levee system.

“We need to work with him,” Kelley said. “We need to find a spot where it’s OK to put it.”

Williams said he’d continue to keep in touch with the mayor and others who might be able to return the monument where it belongs, especially in a place where the public could heed its words and honor those who died.

“I hope we can get it done this year,” he said. “I might not be here next year.”