By LINDA CHION KENNEY
A walking tour of the monuments, markers, plaques and pavers at Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park gives testament to the area’s rich military heritage and to the enduring horrors of war.
Consider the case of a man from Wimauma, a Vietnam veteran who wears a metal bracelet that bears the name of Capt. Thomas Kilculle, a Vietnam soldier missing in action since Aug. 26, 1967.
“I can’t believe it’s been more than 50 years,” the Wimauma veteran said softly, within earshot. While he asked not be interviewed, he did allow for a photo of the bracelet he never takes off, as he noted how much the park has grown since his first visit 17 years ago.
As a reporter, I have written many stories about park additions, ceremonies and remembrances. On this day, May 29, I decided as a visitor myself, like the aging Vietnam veteran, to walk the park in silence, learning from the artwork and etched narratives and taking pause to update my collection of park photographs.
Early on came the memorials for the three Seminole Wars fought in Florida from 1814 through 1858. Markers remind visitors to honor the memory of both the American soldier and Seminole warrior, who “faced each other across a wide cultural gap” and “gave their energy, their skill and, sometimes, their lives to their respective peoples.”
Duly noted is that the first Seminole War started while Florida was a Spanish colony and that a large part of central Florida was established as Hillsborough County in 1834. The memorial for the Spanish-American War, fought over five months in 1898, pays tribute to the Rough Riders, a band of fighters led by Theodore Roosevelt, a self-made “cowboy soldier” who, in 1901, went on to become the nation’s 26th president.
Roosevelt’s quote on a stone wall reads as compelling motivation for life’s trials and tribulations: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” The Hillsborough County commissioners at their May 17 meeting declared June 2-8 “Tampa Rough Riders 125th Anniversary Week in Hillsborough County.”
Forever changed by the ravages of war, decorated military leaders throughout Veterans Memorial Park give voice to the passion for peace.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed,” reads an etching at the World War II memorial, in dedication to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who from 1953 to 1961 served as the nation’s 34th president.
“It is my fervent hope,” reads the World War II etching capturing the sentiments of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, “and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past . . . a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish for freedom, tolerance and justice.”
These words come from the speech MacArthur gave Sept. 4, 1945, at the surrender ceremony of Japan aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, which in the quote’s series of ellipsis dots refers as well to “a world found upon faith and understanding.”
I understand this, that despite the faith that endures, war rages on.
At the park five years ago, people gathered to commemorate 100 years since the end of World War I, also called the Great War, or “the war to end all wars.” But it didn’t, which is why park memorials exist for World War II; wars in Korea and Vietnam; the Gulf War, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan).
Remembered also is the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, with tributes as well for Committed Forces, Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients and the more than 4,000 military dogs who prevented more than 10,000 casualties in Vietnam. Only a handful of dogs returned to the states, despite the pleas of handlers.
“In America’s haste to get out of Vietnam, we left the forgotten heroes of the K-9 Corps to be put to sleep, turned over to the South Vietnamese troops or let loose to fend for themselves,” the memorial reads. “These were very special soldiers and will always be remembered in the hearts of those who served with them.”
Also getting their due, submariners and “Seabees,” a heterography of the initials C.B., for U.S. Naval “Construction Battalions.” Established in 1942 to meet the growing need to build bases, camps and more, the motto “we build, we fight” defines the Seabee effort. “The difficult we do at once,” reads the tribute, “the impossible takes a bit longer.”
In view near the end of my walk is a Korean mother, who grieves with her children at the upright rifle sporting her husband’s helmet. Nearby, a haunting sculpture of an emaciated prisoner of war reaches out from behind barbed wire.
Underneath, a reminder that “those who were captured, survived their brutal imprisonment and came home, carry their wounds until their death,” while those still missing in action, “leave a family wondering their fate, waiting, still waiting.”
So it is for the Vietnam veteran from Wimauma I met in my walk at Veterans Memorial Park. I pray for the closure he seeks, so he can remove the bracelet he wears for Capt. Thomas Kilculle, who entered the U.S. Air Force from Maryland and served with the 558th Tactical Fighter Squadron more than 50 years ago. Until then, and for always, may his memory be eternal.
Visit the Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park and Rear Admiral LeRoy Collins Jr. Museum in Tampa, at 3602 U.S. Highway 201 North, online at www.veteransparkhc.org/.