It started with a vision from Alex MacWilliam Sr. – a First Sergeant during World War I – to create a place where Indian River County veterans killed during war could be honored.
MacWilliam – a former state representative and past Vero Beach mayor – led the efforts to create the Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary in 1964 for all local military troops who died in combat regardless of which war they served.
Now, leaders are expanding on MacWilliam’s mission by preparing for another memorial groundbreaking in January – this one to solely honor the Greatest Generation that fought and died in the Second World War.
“The fact that we had an island and not a memorial for World War II was unacceptable,” said retired Army Col. Tony Young, the lead for the WWII Tribute Team. “We have men and women who gave their lives around the world – the Caribbean, India, Normandy, the Pacific and even Vero Beach.”
The stand-alone World War II tribute, which organizers say will be the crown jewel of Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary, is set to open on Memorial Day next year. Young – who served during wars in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Iraq – said the idea was to provide a permanent stage on the island to highlight the veterans killed during World War II, which lasted from 1939 to 1945.
“The tribute will provide a proper recognition for the 42 local fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, in addition to all World War II veterans and their families,” Young said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a lasting legacy.”
The tribute will have a permanent stage located in the area of the circular paved walkways beyond the cenotaphs, said team member Bethany Fortunato. Previously, organizers had to bring in makeshift stages for Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies.
The stage will have four 7-foot-tall columns behind it and four smaller columns in the front.
Young said the taller columns will each have a World War II medal displayed that acknowledges veterans’ service. The medals will be the Defense of America Medal, the American Theatre Medal, the Pacific Theatre Medal and the European Campaign Medal.
The smaller columns will have war symbols. The first logo will represent the Vero Beach Naval Air Station, which is now the location at Vero Beach Regional Airport.
The second and third symbol will show the front and back of the World War II Victory Medal, Young said. The fourth logo will feature the honorable service pin.
“The whole intent is to contain what was started by Alex MacWilliam,” Young said. “It’s an area where we want to show the significance of serving our country. Young people who come to the island will learn to appreciate veterans’ sacrifices.”
Video provided by WWII Tribute Team
But one of the biggest fundraisers to help get the memorial underway may surprise some. A strong but smooth, balanced bourbon whiskey called “21 Salute” is helping organizers with their fundraising efforts. The whiskey is distilled from a diverse set of grains, including corn, rye, and malted barley.
The 21st Amendment Distillery opened on Labor Day in downtown and partnered with the World War II Tribute Team to sell the small-batch bourbon. Owner Jeff Palleschi said collaborating with the tribute organizers was a no-brainer.
“It made sense to donate,” said Palleschi, who served in the Marine Corps and is a board member of the Veterans Council of Indian River County.
The whiskey is $250 per bottle, organizers said. The bottle has a label of a uniformed World War II soldier looking off into the horizon.
“It has been an inspiration to support the World War II monument mission at memorial island,” Indian River County Commissioner Joe Flescher said.
The first barrel of 21 Salute was donated toward the World War II Tribute. The team has raised $281,000 in direct donations – plus another $30,000 in like-kind services – out of its $700,000 goal so far.
“We’ll need the funding,” Young said.
Young, his grandfather Anthony W. Young and MacWilliam have all previously led the city of Vero Beach as mayor. Young’s grandfather was elected the first mayor of the city in 1919.
“My grandfather was a mentor to MacWilliam,” Young said.
MacWilliam’s great-grandson, Alex MacWilliam IV, paid homage to his great-grandfather last week by presenting his flag box to be hung on the Wall of Honor at 21st Amendment Distillery. The wall showcases flag boxes for several military veterans.
“It’s truly an honor to be here,” Alex MacWilliam IV said at the event. “It’s very important to keep my great grandfather’s name alive along with other veterans who served the country.”
Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary
A large American Flag swayed in the wind atop a pole at the end of the walkway that leads to Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary, located at the west end of Dahlia Lane on the barrier island. Next to it sits a large World War I Doughboy statue of MacWilliam in his military gear and carrying a rifle with a bayonet.
The stewardship from MacWilliam – known as “Mayor Mac” and “Mr. Indian River County” – still resonates with local veterans today who visit the memorial island.
The island, located adjacent to Riverside Park, has a 0.6-mile loop trail. Memorial plaques line a walkway on the island to remember the men and women who served the country and changed the course of American history.
The purpose of the island is to create an atmosphere to quietly reflect on the bravery of soldiers who fought so Americans could enjoy the many freedoms held today, city officials say. The entrance to the island has recently been blocked off because of a separate city bridge replacement project expected to be completed in December.
The Second World War was the bloodiest battle in history, causing 40-to-50 million deaths, according to historians. Troops from the U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union fought against Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan to stop Germans from conquering Europe and Russia, and to push the Japanese back across the Pacific Ocean.
Not many World War II veterans are still around to tell stories of the weariness of the battle, bullets whizzing past helmets or the crunch of the sand against boots in bomb-littered warzones. Young said he thinks the public will be very proud when the tribute is revealed next year.
“It’s part of who we are as a community,” Young said. “It will be beautiful and respectful of the men and women who gave their lives. It’s a work of art and a compliment to the island.”
Donations can be made to the Cultural Council of Indian River County – World War II Tribute. The donations can also be made by check to the organization located at 1216 21st St., Vero Beach, 32960.