Rebuilding a court of honor

In the early 1920s, the Gold Star Mothers of St. Louis created a memorial inside the median of Kingshighway Boulevard to honor their sons and daughters who died while serving in World War I. Named The Gold Star Court of Honor, the memorial honored 1,185 fallen heroes with individual bronze plaques laid next to Sycamore trees. Each marker bore the honoree’s name, rank, branch of service and division, and time, place and cause of death. But today, all that remains of the memorial are a few trees after bulldozers dug up many of the plaques more than 30 years ago to make room for street modifications.

However, the plaques bearing the memories of America’s fallen heroes were not lost forever. Members of Rollo-Calcaterra American Legion Post 15 witnessed the destruction of the Court of Honor memorial and spent many weekends with metal detectors, picks and shovels to salvage as many plaques as they could from the wreckage. Of the 1,185 bronze plaques, 752 were recovered.

The rescued plaques were stored in the basement at Soldier’s Memorial Military Museum, collecting dust, until a few years ago when Post 15 member Skip Berger made it his mission to ensure his brothers-in-arms were remembered and honored forever.

"Each plaque represents the men and women who were from St. Louis and died for their country," Berger said. "These plaques represent a vital piece of history and are made to be seen."

Berger and many other Post 15 members began their mission of preserving the history and memory of the 1,185 fallen heroes by developing a proposal to rebuild and give the Gold Star Court of Honor a permanent home. On Sept. 30, 2012, the proposal came to fruition, as the Gold Star Court of Honor was resurrected at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery where 149 of the men are buried.

"We owe deep gratitude to the St. Louis Gold Star Mothers and the Rollo-Calcaterra American Legion Post 15 for their many years of dedicated service and tireless efforts to find a permanent and everlasting home for this historic memorial," said Jeff Barnes, director of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. "We were deeply honored to be selected as the cemetery to host this beautiful and historic memorial. This memorial will be maintained in perpetuity at this historic national cemetery."

Funding for the Court of Honor memorial was secured through donations from Post 15 and community members, plus a $250,000 grant from the St. Louis County Port Authority Community Reinvestment Fund, which covered the entire cost of the memorial. Construction began May 10, 2012, and a re-dedication ceremony was held four months later on Sept. 30.

"It’s always amazing when you see craftsmen who care about what they are doing," said Bob Winters, principal at Ottolino, Winters and Huebner architecture, designers of the new memorial. "Once the craftsmen found out what they were building, their attitude changed, and they took such care and pride in the construction of the memorial."

The memorial features the 752 salvaged plaques embedded alphabetically in two black granite walls, which symbolize the two sections of Kingshighway where the original memorial was located. Each wall is flanked by columns that list the names from the missing plaques — obtained through archived military records — and the history of the memorial. Two Medal of Honor recipients are among those listed on the granite walls — Capt. Alex R. Skinker, whose plaque is missing, and Sgt. Fred Stockham.

More than 200 people attended the re-dedication ceremony, including Steve Muro, the Department of Veterans Affairs undersecretary for memorial affairs, and four Gold Star mothers. Julie Vinnedge, whose son Phillip, a Marine, was killed in Afghanistan 16 days into his deployment, spoke during the ceremony on behalf of the Gold Star Mothers of St. Louis.

"One of the things a Gold Star mother is always worried about is that her son will be forgotten," Vinnedge said. "And whenever I speak, I always try to say, ‘Please, don’t forget our fallen.’ And that’s what Skip did; he wasn’t going to allow the men and women of World War I to be forgotten. It was an honor to come to the dedication, to see Skip smile, to see The American Legion achieve what they wanted to achieve, and to see that our fallen will not be forgotten."

The rebuilding of the Court of Honor memorial has also had a resounding effect on families of the fallen. During the re-dedication ceremony, a man approached Berger in tears and hugged him. His great-great-uncle was killed during the war, and he knew nothing about him until he found his plaque on the memorial wall.

"By the time the ceremony was over, I don’t think there was a dry eye," Berger said. "It was almost electric. The rebuilding of the Gold Star Court of Honor was a mission, duty first, and we got the mission done."