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Donald W. Meyers: It Happened Here: Jerry Taylor Veterans Plaza built in Sunnyside

Yakima Herald-Republic - 11/13/2022

Nov. 13---- Thomas M. Smith

Two new granite walls were dedicated Friday at the Jerry Taylor Veterans Plaza.

Its 22 granite walls — nearly 70 tons in total weight — make it one of the largest — if not the largest —veterans memorials by weight in the Pacific Northwest. And it's not finished.

"We don't intend to finish it in our lifetimes," said Greg Schlieve, commander of American Legion Post 73 in Sunnyside.

While the monument is seen as a point of pride in the city, it took Schlieve years of pushing against a city where people did not want to think about war and what those who went off to war had to do, as well as a recession.

A Vietnam War veteran — he served in the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment — Schlieve's efforts to build a memorial in Sunnyside started in 1995, when he was elected commander of the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"I got a letter a few weeks later from the national organization congratulating me, saying it was the greatest year to be elected a commander," Schlieve recalled. It was the 50th anniversary of the ending of World War II, and the national organization recommended conducting a special service at the local World War II memorial on Memorial Day.

There was a problem: Schlieve didn't know where Sunnyside's memorial was. When he mentioned it to VFW members, several World War II veterans stormed out, saying that the town had never built them a memorial.

And the post's chaplain at the time told him that the city would never erect one for them.

The lack of a memorial goes back to Sunnyside's origins. The town almost became a ghost town in the Great Panic of 1893, but a group of German Baptist Progressive Brethren established the Christian Cooperative Colony there, bolstering Sunnyside's population enough to incorporate in 1902.

Because of the church's influence, Sunnyside became known as the "City of Churches," marked on many maps with a halo or a Christian cross.

When veterans came home from the war, their churchgoing friends and neighbors didn't want to hear their war stories or even acknowledge their service. Instead, they were told that people at home had it tough too, and it was better to leave the past behind and push ahead.

Schlieve said veterans who asked that their departed brothers-in-arms be remembered at high school reunions were squelched.

It rubbed him the wrong way, and Schlieve formed a group with World War II veterans to build the memorial they richly deserved.

"I told them I was going to do it if I had to pay for it myself," Schlieve said.

The first memorial was erected at the city cemetery in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. But he faced a lot of resistance from church groups, who would send people out to accost him as he went to the post office or grocery shopping at Safeway.

"They would jump out of their cars and circle around me and tell me, 'Greg, what are you doing to this town? We don't honor the killing of people.'"

He said some of the church women told him that their husbands never talk about their war experiences, and it shouldn't be brought up.

Part of the financing for the project came from offering plaques bearing the names of veterans. He started getting calls from veterans asking if anyone had bought a plaque for them. Some of them bought their own plaques after their families didn't.

That, combined with the post-9/11 surge in patriotism, helped win people over to the memorial.

The same church women who confronted Schlieve were now coming up and apologizing. Some would explain that their husbands had bought plaques on the monument and were calling friends and family to come down and see it.

These former critics, Schlieve said, finally realized how much it meant to veterans to recognize their service and talk about their experience.

"It was a major change in the community," Schlieve said.

That led the veterans to start considering a more prominent memorial. There was a small plaque honoring World War I veterans outside City Hall, and the idea was to create a bigger memorial to World War II veterans and others.

The city approved a plan for a plaza near South Ninth Street and East Edison Avenue in 2006. It would be named for former mayor and World War II veteran Jerry Taylor.

Fund-raising began, but then the housing bubble burst in 2008, plunging the country into a recession and drying up donations, Schlieve said.

"People were holding on to their money tightly," Schlieve said.

But the economy returned to normal by 2013, and the first two granite walls went up around Thanksgiving 2014. The block-long plaza has space for 42 granite walls, with 22 black walls for historical information or quotes, with 20 gray granite panels for up to 2,400 names of living and deceased veterans, and not just those from World War II.

Along with local World War II veterans, the monument bears the names of veterans of other wars, dating back to the American Revolution, as well as British, Filipino and Dutch veterans of World War II, Schlieve said.

Some of the current panels also include the histories of the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor, as well as the text of the Declaration of Independence and the Star Spangled Banner.

"We just wanted to make sure it would be easy for future generations to keep working on this thing," Schlieve said.

The American Legion has a contract with the city, with the city taking over insurance coverage for the memorial as each wall installed.

It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at Sources for this week's column include an interview with Greg Schlieve and the archives of the Yakima Herald-Republic.


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