VERO BEACH — As a dedicated World War I veteran, Alex MacWilliam, Sr. knew what it meant to serve his country – a Lieutenant in the 313th Machine Gun Battalion, he was wounded in France and was decorated with two Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Service Cross and the French Croix de Guerre.
He is also credited with numerous achievements while serving his budding community, including several terms in both the Florida Legislature and as Mayor of Vero Beach, skillfully guiding the city as it began to grow and prosper.
It was through his advocacy, with the heartfelt support of the entire community, that one of his finest legacies was created – the Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary.
Etched into its foundation stone is a poignant reminder to all – “Lest We Forget.”
The Memorial Day ceremony this week marked the 50th Anniversary of the restful haven for reflection and remembrance.
The tranquil island oasis was dedicated in May 1964 as a tribute to generations of service men and women from all branches of service, especially those who served from Indian River County.
A large crowd poured over the flag-lined bridge Monday to honor those members of the armed forces who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and to recognize the early visionaries who made the Sanctuary a reality.
The island’s development from dredging to dedication had taken almost 20 years; the final push for completion coming in March 1963, when MacWilliam formed a community committee of 43 men and 37 women, one of whom was Alma Lee Loy.
“Everybody was given a job and everybody went to work. Helen and I were the two youngsters on the committee; we were of course appointed by her father,” said Loy, referencing the late Helen Glenn.
Glenn was later named the first chairman of the Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary Advisory Committee and served in the role for many years.
“When I think about us sitting around on fruit crates among all those Australian pines, I don’t think any of us had the vision that the island would be developed as it is today,” she added of the 1964 dedication.
“It certainly was a tremendous community effort.”
Tributes and memorials have been added over the years, recognizing the sacrifices made by men and women in service from World War I to current conflicts.
Seventy-eight cenotaphs, memorials without remains, honor residents who died in service – from the WWI death of Levy Lavendar Law in 1918 through Petty Officer Ronald Scott Owens, whose ship, the USS Cole, was bombed by terrorists in 2000.
Additional memorials recognize POW/MIA, Purple Heart recipients, and Pearl Harbor survivors.
The morning ceremonies began with a parade of colors by honor guards representing all branches of military services, veterans, law enforcement, firefighters, and civic organizations, led in by the Master’s Academy Fife and Drum Corps.
The flag-waving crowd joined in with pride for the National Anthem and a selection of patriotic songs performed by the Vero Beach High School Band, before Piper Michael Hyde, led U. S. Army Sgt. Chad Murphy for the solemn Placing of the Wreath, which was followed by the haunting tolling of ships bells.
Moving tributes were given to two Gold Star families who lost loved ones in service, two Blue Star families whose children are currently deployed, and 17 veterans of previous wars were recognized. The keynote address was given by 30-year veteran, Chaplain Richard Flick, Captain U.S. Navy (Ret.).
At the conclusion of the ceremonies a special 50th Anniversary rendition of Memorial Island painted by local artist Lee G. Smith was unveiled to commemorate the occasion, with copies presented to Alma Lee Loy and to the Gold Star families.
The painting will be on display at the Victory Store at the Indian River Mall.