When local historian Wilbur Jones started asking around for help to have Wilmington’s World War I memorial relocated to the riverfront, New Hanover County Chairman Woody White remembered replying: “What are you talking about? There’s a monument in front of New Hanover High School?”
“He said, ‘Yeah. I rest my case,’” White recalled Tuesday in a ceremony to rededicate the memorial, which was recently moved from in front of the school, having previously been moved from a Market Street median nearly a century before.
White was among several speakers who took part in Tuesday’s ceremony, held appropriately on Veterans Day at the monument’s new home beside the POW/MIA memorial, near the mooring for the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Diligence.
Joining them were dozens of veterans and their families, among others who gathered on the Wilmington riverfront to celebrate the memorial and the men it represents: 37 residents of New Hanover County who died in the line of duty or due to illness or injuries suffered from the war.
Their sacrifice, along with the memorial, was often overlooked at the high school site, as White’s recollection conveyed. On the riverfront, which Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo noted was recently named the best in the country in an online poll—a recognition Saffo said would bring more visitors to the city—more people will be able to view the memorial and appreciate the service of the men whose names are inscribed on it, Jones said.
Jones, a local military historian who was recently appointed to the commission that oversees the Battleship North Carolina, berthed across the river, said he had gotten tired of seeing the memorial overlooked at the school, where its placement along Market made it virtually invisible to passing drivers.
“Nobody was paying any attention to it; nobody would stop, and those who did stop probably didn’t read the inscriptions on either side,” Jones said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. Come on, Wilmington, we’ve got to do something about this to preserve this monument, because it was deteriorating, it needed repair and it certainly needed cleaning.
“It has been at New Hanover High School since 1922, when it was dedicated just a few years after the war had ended, and was the brainchild and spearheaded by the American Legion post here,” he said. “It had moved from the median strip, where it was originally located, over to Brogden Hall, and I bet that if we asked any of you New Hanover High School students who are in the crowd today, you probably never stopped to do anything other than maybe sit on it.
“But it’s here now, we moved it, and it’s because of that that I want to thank a whole lot of people,” Jones said. “This, to me, was a perfect example of how the community can come together.”
Jones noted the involvement and cooperation of New Hanover County Schools, which owned the memorial and agreed to transfer it to the City of Wilmington; New Hanover County government, which paid for the relocation and refurbishment; and the New Hanover County Library, Cape Fear Museum, Oakdale Cemetery and the U.S. Coast Guard, among several others.
Cape Fear Museum Historian Janet Davidson told attendees about the lives of the men represented on the memorial, which she had researched over the course of its relocation. Of the 37 names, three are of African-American soldiers—including Thomas Bullock, who was the principal at Wilmington’s Williston Industrial School.
Bullock was reportedly the first officer of the 367th infantry unit of the 92nd Division to die in combat. Davidson’s research, which is posted on her “Cape Fear Historian” weblog, notes the local African-American American Legion post was organized and named in honor of Bullock.
“Millions of people died in World War I. Our memorial is just one of the many that are scattered across the nation and the world to honor the men and women who gave their lives for their countries,” Davidson said. “I’m honored to have had the chance to share a small part of these 37 men’s stories with you today.”
Attendees also heard from Si Harrington, formerly of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History, who spoke on the state’s contribution to the war; Taylor Fain, an associate professor at UNCW, who spoke on the war’s significance to the United States; and U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
McIntyre, who is retiring this year after nearly two decades representing the Seventh Congressional District, emphasized the sacrifices made by those on the memorial and numerous others who have served in the Armed Forces.
“It’s the true sacrifice of those who literally gave their lives and, today, who stand up and fight and who stand forth and say, ‘I will serve our country.’ It’s those among this crowd who have served in active duty, the Reserve, the Guard,” McIntyre said, “and those who have served—our veterans on this Veterans Day and our military retirees.
“It’s because of your spirit and service and sacrifice that we’re able to gather here today to enjoy this day and to enjoy, we pray, many more days to come,” McIntyre said. “…All Americans must realize that it’s our responsibility to continue to honor those who have served our country, who have fought to make us free, who have given us the opportunity to worship, and to speak, and to gather, and to report, and to do the things that we like to do on a daily basis.
“From the sea to the air to the land, we thank those who have served our country, and we honor them on this Veterans Day.”