The Milwaukee County War Memorial Center has entered the public phase of a $500,000 campaign to build a world-class exhibit honoring the 64 Wisconsin residents who have been awarded the highest and most prestigious military decoration in the United States, Congressional Medal of Honor.
For 65 years, the mission of the War Memorial Center has been “to honor the dead by serving the living.” When its doors opened in 1957, there were many families directly associated with the victims of World War II and Korea. Milwaukee County alone had approximately 4,000 community members lost in these conflicts. It was a time when everyone was connected to someone who had fallen in battle or directly knew someone who had lost a family member.
Thanks to the continued support of the community, the War Memorial Center still plays an important role in Milwaukee, providing a place where heroes are honored, history is taught, and warriors find space to heal.
Operation Advance is the latest service mission introduced by the establishment. It marks a shift toward permanent facilities at the War Memorial Center, beginning with the Wisconsin Medal of Honor exhibit.
“As one of Wisconsin’s Medal of Honor recipients, I’ve always said I’m just a keeper of that medal,” said Vietnam veteran and awardee Gary G. Wetzel. the Medal of Honor. “I wear it for everyone, especially the guys who never came back from distant wars. I received the Medal of Honor in 1968 from President Lyndon B. Johnson for service in Vietnam. For more than 50 years, I have shared the stories of the heroes who wear these medals. Their stories deserve a permanent home at the War Memorial Center.
A plan for the project had been mooted over the past few years. But Wetzel renewed the idea about 18 months ago during a conversation with Dan Buttery, who had just taken over as director of the War Memorial Center. This began the lengthy review process with the nonprofit’s board of directors, involving research and requests for proposals to implement the project.
“It is impossible to overstate how revered our Medal of Honor recipients are in the veteran community and in the nation,” said Dan Buttery, Iraq War veteran and president and CEO of the War Memorial Center. “This medal is only awarded to those who ‘conspicuously distinguish themselves by bravery and fearlessness at the risk of their lives beyond the call of duty’. The recognition is so exclusive that Medal of Honor recipients are invited to every presidential inauguration. It is high time for the Wisconsin recipients of this great achievement to be recognized in a permanent and engaging display so that future generations will never forget their bravery.
The focus on Medal of Honor recipients in Wisconsin includes individuals like Benjamin Lewis Salomon, who was born into a Jewish family in Milwaukee and attended Shorewood High School before joining Marquette University. The US Army dentist served as a front line surgeon during World War II and died defending his hospital in 1944 in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Solomon would eventually be recognized after many years, as the Medal of Honor was not awarded to anyone during the war who was not assigned to a combat post. But his story of sacrifice remains an important example, as Solomon gave his life to stay and protect the wounded when their position was overrun.
Since World War II, more than 60% of recipients have died and received their Medal of Honor posthumously. Additionally, the time that has since passed has also proven to be a challenge in finding living relatives. But Buttery felt it was vital to reach out to family members, like Mitchell’s daughter Red Cloud, Jr.
His father, a Wisconsin resident and Native American Ho-Chunk soldier, fought as a Marine on Guadalcanal. He died on Hill 123 near Chonghyon, North Korea in 1950. His example of heroism also inspired other War Memorial Center plans to tell the stories of Wisconsin Native American veterans and design programs to educate on the culture of the local tribes and their commitment to service.
2022 is also the 160th anniversary of Wisconsin’s first recipient of the Medal of Honor, for service in the Civil War. This was awarded to Denis John Francis Murphy, an immigrant from Ireland. Denis Murphy enlisted in a company of Brown County volunteers known as “De Pere Rifles” in 1861, which was mobilized as Company F of the 14th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Second Battle of Corinth, where he continued to wear his regiment’s colors despite three wounds.
Wisconsin’s 64 Medal of Honor recipients will have their names engraved in stone quarried from Sussex and displayed at the permanent exhibit.
“We actually had 63 as the state count of Wisconsin, until Civil War historians discovered number 64. He’s another Irish immigrant buried in an unmarked grave here in Milwaukee,” said Buttery. “His name is Michael McCormick, and his home is still in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward.”
Researchers Tom Ludka and Margaret Berres discovered the sailor and former Great Lakes ship’s captain in the Cook County Archives. McCormick was recognized in Illinois because the only place to enlist in the Navy in 1861 was in Chicago.
“During the Battle of Arkansas, he had to scuttle his ship so it wouldn’t be captured by the Confederates and escaped through the swamp. He caught swamp fever and ended up dying here in Milwaukee,” said Buttery: “Actually, he was treated by Wood who was a doctor at the soldiers’ home.”
In 1937, the name of the National Home plot in Milwaukee was changed to Wood National Cemetery after General George H. Wood.
The Wisconsin Medal of Honor Expo is scheduled to open in the fall of 2022. To date, the first phase of the Operation Advance campaign has reached over 80% of its goal. The public phase of the campaign is seeking support from the community at large to preserve the stories of Wisconsin’s heroes and to help teach a new generation about the sacrifices they made to protect our freedoms.
That’s why the War Memorial Center continues to play a vital role in the social fabric of Milwaukee. It is a steward of history for fading older generations, while being a place of gathering and healing for current generations readjusting to civilian life.
Other initiatives under Operation Advance include future plans to honor Wisconsin’s heroes, such as the POW/MIA (prisoner of war/missing in action) exhibit and the WMC Situation Room – a laboratory of leadership where students and adult learners are challenged to explore the characteristics of military examples throughout history.
“Telling these stories of what it took to end slavery, what the people of Wisconsin did during the Civil War to keep this nation together, and their actions in wars since for keeping this country safe, is tied to our missions – all of which are part of our service to the Milwaukee community,” Buttery added.