Legacy of the Plains compiling wall memorializing veterans

November 2, 2017

GERING — Staff and volunteers at the Legacy of the Plains Museum are looking for a few good men and women to help them finish their Veterans Day Wall.

For the past week, volunteers have been searching through scrapbooks, books and in the archives to find as many veterans from the Panhandle to be represented on their wall. Though they have several dozen, they know they don’t have them all.

“Anyone who has a relative they’d like to be on the wall can bring a photo in,” said Amanda Gibbs, director. “We will scan it and put it up.”

Finding the people is difficult enough for historians and archivists. Learning their stories often result in dead ends. Gibbs knows the story of a few of the veterans, but the story of Ronald E. Bales, of Scottsbluff, who was killed in Vietnam, is one she wishes she could learn more about. Bales was supposed to be in the Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary.

“Ken called two years ago, but we couldn’t find anything on him (Bales),” Gibbs said. “No sports, no clubs, no nothing. All we could find was his picture.”

According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial’s Wall of Faces, Bales was born on Dec. 23, 1946, and died April 15, 1971. Gibbs said she will continue to try to learn more about his life.

While researching, Curator Olivia Garl said photos from the Korean War to the present are difficult to find.

“Our news clippings aren’t all from the Star-Herald (newspaper) for Vietnam because they didn’t cover it a lot,” Gibbs said. “After World War II, coverage gradually started dropping off.”

Gibbs said she didn’t know why, but thought people’s opinion of war and nationalism began to change.

Garl said war became something that resided in the back of people’s minds, but wasn’t generally thought about.

“There wasn’t much of a tie as there was in World War I or II,” Garl said. “Today, we might know someone in the service. Back then, everyone knew someone else involved.”

It’s an issue that comes up often whenever research is done locally. World Wars I and II were covered extensively, but subsequent wars were not. Gibbs and Garl relied on other places, such as the Wall of Faces. Even there, they weren’t always successful. Out of 40 pages of veterans from Nebraska, five had veterans from the Panhandle and not all those had pictures.

Gibbs found a group photograph of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War, and Civil War photos of Thomas Van Pelt and Alson J. Shumway. Both men were influential in the early years of the Panhandle.

Gibbs said anyone who served is welcome to be on the wall, regardless of whether they saw action.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “If you enlist, put forth the effort and only serve one day, it matters.”

When they signed up, no one knew whether they would die in combat, in a training accident or succumb to disease. Among the soldiers on the wall, one died during basic training and two brothers died of natural causes in basic training.

“That’s something you can’t just dismiss because they didn’t serve in a war,” Garl said. “Their stories still matter.”

Gibbs said one soldier’s remains were returned home in 2010 after he was finally identified. He was buried with full honors.

“That one got me teary-eyed,” Gibbs said.

One veteran’s story made an impact on Garl. She learned that Michael Walker’s daughter was born a couple of months after he died.

“Reading about what people wrote about him, they were tough to get through,” Garl said. “It brings it all into perspective.”

There are stories of honor, of purple hearts, of medals of honor and of the men and women who didn’t get to come home on a wall at the Legacy of the Plains Museum. Staff and volunteers are asking the community to help them remember everyone who served.

The exhibit will remain on display until after Thanksgiving. If you’d like to help, contact the museum at 308-436-1989.