Mark McDermott

Veterans Memorial celebrates 25 years in Hermosa

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Mike Flaherty and Steve Crecy in front of Hermosa’s veterans memorial. Both were original members of the volunteer group that helped build the monument. Photo by Ryan McDonald

by Ryan McDonald

In 1994, Edward P. Scott, then an assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, came to Hermosa Beach. Scott had arrived just before Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May, for the dedication of Hermosa’s Veterans Memorial. Scott said that, in the course of his job, he had been to plenty of monument and memorial dedications. But the level of civic involvement he observed in Hermosa was something new.

“When you said you guys built a memorial, I didn’t know you meant you built it,” Scott said at a celebratory dinner before the memorial’s dedication. “Most communities just raise the money and give someone a check to do the work.”

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A quarter of a century later, the community spirit that got the memorial built is still around. The city is preparing for another Veterans Day ceremony at its iconic monument at the Community Center on Monday evening. Like the gatherings in past years, the ceremony will take place in the late afternoon. Most of the speeches, invocations, and music will unfold in the solemnity of candlelight. Among the speakers for the event will be some of those who helped get the memorial built; many of the people who so impressed Scott remain involved in maintaining and improving the memorial today.

With the passage of time, though, some of those who were involved have moved away or passed on, including William Buchanan, a Hermosa resident and former Army medic, who died last month. Buchanan devised the “Veterans are timeless” motto that is etched into the monument, and the saying has become so associated with the site that it is often referred to around town as the “‘Veterans are timeless’ memorial.”

Veterans Memorial Chairman Steve Crecy said that the motto crystallized the commission’s hope that the structure would outlast the people who helped build it.

“Most of us are Vietnam vets,” Crecy said of the members of the volunteer commission behind the memorial. “But we felt this should be an all-veterans memorial.” 

As much as the monument is a reflection of enduring significance, the story of how it got built is also a story about how Hermosa and the rest of the country are changing, including in the relationship between the military and the people they serve.

Loose Change

In 1992, Ken Marks, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, and former Hermosa resident, spoke during the public comment portion of a Hermosa Parks, Recreation and Community Resources Advisory Board meeting. Marks wanted to be able to visit a veterans memorial without having to travel to another part of Southern California, and asked why the city did not have a monument of its own. The simple question moved members of the community, who formed a volunteer commission to explore how to make the memorial happen. After some internal discussions, the group made a presentation before the City Council, who blessed the idea, but said that the group would have to raise the money to build it themselves.

At the time, veterans held key positions in city leadership. Future mayor J.R. Reviczky was a member of the parks and rec commission. So was Crecy. Mike Flaherty, a current member of the Planning Commission, worked as the superintendent of Hermosa’s Public Works Department.

Among the group’s first tasks was deciding where to put the monument. The volunteer group looked at several possibilities, including along the Greenbelt, before settling on the east side of the Community Center. They were drawn to the location by the opportunity to display the memorial to the tens of thousands of people who pass by on Pacific Coast Highway each day. The area where the monument now stands had once served as a playground, and at the time was a swath of concrete favored by tricycle-riding kids. The city agreed to site the monument on public land.

Along with providing the land, the city also hedged on its insistence that the project be volunteer-funded, allowing for the use of city machinery and refuse hauling services. And Mary Rooney, then the city’s Community Resources Director, served on the memorial commission, and helped shepard the project to completion.

But the ways the project raised cash served to emphasize its community roots. Local nonprofits, including the Woman’s Club of Hermosa Beach, The Garden Club, the Kiwanis and Rotary, all pitched in. And, with Kickstarter and GoFundMe still far in the future, the volunteers found themselves doing things the old-fashioned way. 

“I can’t tell you how many weekends I stood in front of the post office selling t-shirts and hats,” Flaherty said.

“We set up a booth at the fiestas. We got everything from loose change to…I think the biggest donation I ever got was a $50 check,” Reviczky added. “I know there was a story behind that check, because the woman who handed it to me had tears in her eyes and gave me a big hug.”

Flaherty and Ken Marks get the monument’s flag pole ready for its debut in 1994. Photo courtesy Steve Crecy

Many of the project’s volunteers were already accustomed to working with one another on civic projects. Flaherty and Crecy had met working on the Greg Jarvis Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial on The Strand; they met future mayor Pete Tucker through efforts to restore the Vetter Windmill on Pacific Coast Highway. Nonetheless, they recognized that the veterans memorial would be a more challenging undertaking.

“Doing a project wasn’t new. But this was quite a bit more complicated,” Flaherty said.

The project was also helped by a large number of volunteers with experience in the building trades. Surveyors, excavators, masons, electricians: all would be needed, and many of them could arrive for a Saturday volunteering at the site with little more than a short walk. Hermosa resident and contractor Dave Garret helped pour the concrete for the site. Terry Honeycutt, a Vietnam war veteran and the owner of his own construction company, also lent his expertise and time. (Honeycutt, a 40-year Hermosa resident, passed away in 2010.) Reviczky, an electrician, was working on the soon-to-open Getty Center while volunteering his time on the Veterans Memorial; his employer, Sasco Electric, donated electrical equipment and lighting that illuminates the monument’s flag at night. Tucker, then working as a contractor, contributed some of the bricks at the memorial from the demolition of job sites he was working on.

At the completion ceremony, it was revealed that the project, which had been given an initial estimate of $50,000 was completed with just $24,000 in cash donations. Because so much of it was assembled through volunteer labor from the community, the figure doubtless understates the true cost of the project. But the monument’s proximity to another sculpture, the Dewey Weber sculpture on the north side of the Community Center, invites comparison: some two decades later, that sculpture and the accompanying drought-tolerant garden cost upward of half a million dollars. 

“I don’t think we could afford to do one of these today,” Crecy said.

Lightning Rod

During the design phase, El Segundo resident Jim Antonious, a Vietnam veteran and an artist, approached the group with a concept to make the monument a sundial. The group was won over by the symbolism of the idea: by using the angled flag poll as the hand of the sundial, and positioning a granite pedestal inscribed with the names of each of the five branches of the military immediately to the north, the shadow of Old Glory could fall on each one every day. The left-to-right order of the names differs from their usual arrangement in military publications, Crecy said, so that the branches with two-word names are equally distributed. (The placement of “Marine Corps” directly beneath the flag pole’s spherical finial means that birds often linger directly above it, which results in some good-natured inter-branch ribbing when volunteers gather for periodic cleanings.)  

The monument’s angled flag poll recalls the iconic raising of the colors at Iwo Jima. (Though the idea of having the flag at an angle was initially criticized as disrespectful, Navy veterans on the commission pointed out that it is often done on ships.) Manhattan Beach architect Joyce Flood helped design the site. The original plan, to have a base for the flag poll made entirely of granite, was nixed after workers with DeLorenzo Marble, a Torrance based firm that also helped on the project, told commission members that such a base would be so heavy that they would need a special type of crane to get it into position, drastically increasing costs.The base is instead a shell of granite supported by cinder blocks filled with concrete, and the flag poll is affixed to it with a series of high-grade stainless steel plates. In the event the flag poll were to be struck by lightning, the base contains a lightning rod reaching deep into the earth below.

As the group worked, they found themselves occasionally bombarded with comments from self-appointed sundial experts. Hermosa resident Jim Brooks helped the commission make sure that the memorial could accurately tell time. Today, at the base of the pedestal holding the flag is a small graphic explaining how to read the dial accounting for the time of year and Daylight Savings Time.

Their efforts, however, did not quite satisfy everyone.

“There was one guy who told us we had done it all wrong. I told him, ‘It’s a little late, we already poured the concrete. But come by in a couple weeks around noon and we’ll see if you’re right,’” recalled Tucker, who served on the commission. The man arrived on the appointed day and, sure enough, the shadow pointed to the roman numeral “XII” at noon.

“That guy got on his bike and we never saw him again,” Tucker said.

Members also found and collected military memorial plaques that had been installed in various places throughout the South Bay, and put some in the gardens rimming the monument. The plaques had become common in the early 1970s, often appearing at the base of “Freedom Trees” and were intended to honor prisoners of war and those missing in action. By the time the Hermosa memorial was being constructed, the people who had installed them had often moved on from the homes and businesses where they had been affixed. The plaques affirmed that the monument would became a place not just for large, public celebrations, but also for quiet, personal grieving.

“We still find stuff that people leave there: letters, boots, certainly lots of flowers. It’s a place for people to remember their loved ones,” Reviczky said.

A generational thing

Though revered, the site is not static; subtle changes happen periodically. The surrounding plant life has evolved several times, and the oleander that ringed the monument were recently replaced with new plants. Years ago the group oversaw the installation of stars along the edge of the granite pedestal listing the branches of the armed forces, to discourage skateboarders from using it for tricks. And though the monument is at least 20 feet from the nearest street, it was once struck by a car; a mark from the accident is still visible to those who know where to look.

In a typical year, the site costs about $2,000 per year to maintain, and the annual Veterans Day ceremony usually takes about another $1,000. But more than money, volunteers say, what is needed is new blood. The monument’s founders are getting older, and are having a hard time finding younger residents to take over their caretaker responsibilities.

Part of the reason is that there are simply fewer of them around. The United States operated a draft between 1948 and 1973, then switched to an all-volunteer force. And according to data from the Veterans Administration, the population of veterans in the country peaked in 1980, at approximately 28,640,000, or 12.5 percent of the population. Today, there are 18.2 million veterans, representing just 5.6 percent of the nation’s population.

But although Hermosa and the South Bay rank relatively high among Southern California communities for their share of veteran population, many of them served decades ago. According to the most recent available data from the American Community Survey, there are 826 veterans living in Hermosa Beach; more than two-thirds served before the end of compulsory service. Crecy said that the massive increase in the price of Hermosa real estate since the memorial was created also plays a role.

“For better or worse, this is not a very affordable area. Not many vets move here,” he said.

Terrance Hayes, director of communications and public affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that the struggle to engage younger people in veterans issues is a nationwide phenomenon. Vietnam veterans, Hayes said, returned to a country with deep skepticism about war and military service; the result was a generation of soldiers who felt they had to fend for themselves.

Ray Dussault, a Hermosa resident and Navy veteran, comes from a military family. His father served two tours in Vietnam, and returned to a country displaying animosity toward veterans. Like the Hermosa volunteers, Dussault’s father launched a community campaign to raise funds and build a veterans memorial in Cartersville, Ga. Dussault followed his father into the service, and said that some of the negative attitudes lingered while he was stationed in Norfolk, Va.

“I remember seeing signs saying, ‘Dogs and sailors, keep off the grass.’ That was the late ‘80s, you’d think it would’ve been long over,” he said.

Things are different, Hayes said, for more recent veterans, especially those of conflicts that began after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“There are programs, there are entitlements: we’ve learned from history. Today’s vets are welcomed back properly; Vietnam vets were not.”

Hayes said that better integrating veterans with the rest of the population was “an ongoing challenge,” and pointed to a statistic that Councilmember Jeff Duclos, who served in the Coast Guard reserve, referenced in Hermosa’s 2017 Veterans Day ceremony: less than 1 percent of the nation’s population is currently serving in the military. Duclos said that the result was “a military far less connected” to the rest of the nation than in the past.

As military participation becomes rarer, service itself is also changing. Dussault said that Hayes and Duclos’ concerns about alienation don’t quite cover his experience. He scored high on the military’s placement exams, and ended up running the reactor on the USS James K. Polk, a nuclear submarine. He got what he described as “invaluable engineering experience,” and estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of today’s active-duty military serve in high-tech capacities. Part of the generational gap, Dussault said, maybe that the image of a veteran as someone who has trudged through mud in a foreign land while holding a rifle is due for an update.

Traditions stick around longer in the military than almost anywhere else. At Monday’s ceremony, Reviczky will help get things started, as he often has, by leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. And though it may not be clear who will take charge of the memorial when he and other original members are gone, he still takes solace in looking out at what they built. 

“I’m really proud of the community that they’ve supported this as much as they have. It says a lot for this little town,” Reviczky said.

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