Hometown Hero: J. R. Wages has made it his mission to honor fallen Georgia military
By Bill Hendrick
Even at 86, J. R. Wages isn’t above getting down on his hands and knees to place still another red brick in American Legion Post 201’s Walk of Memories in Alpharetta. Each of the 7,401 bricks bears the name of a Georgian killed overseas from World War II to Afghanistan.
Wages, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, insists it’s his job to place the bricks. He also came up with the idea for the Walk of Memories, led fundraising for the bricks and has done all necessary research.
The number of bricks changes, because service members keep dying. He recently placed “Afghanistan bricks” for Army specialist Erica Alecksen, killed last July 8 by an improvised explosive device, and Air Force Maj. Walter D. Gray, who died a month later in a suicide attack.
“I put them in at the same time,” Wages says. “I hope they’re the last.”
The bricks make up a curving walkway and flat areas near and around monuments, including a UH-1 Huey helicopter from the Vietnam War, tilted as if in flight, a massive 93,000 M60 tank used in World War II and a 40-milimeter anti-aircraft gun from the LST Polk County.
Wages, post commander Bob Votta and member Marty Farrell, like the “chief” Vietnam veterans, say every Georgian killed in war since Pearl Harbor is represented by a brick.
One recent day, Wages and Votta were overseeing preparation of a new area, beneath a Korean War jet fighter atop a long pole. The 13-acre Legion-owned Alpharetta Veterans Memorial Park property also is dotted by granite structures, including one dedicated to Wages for starting the project in 1996 and making it one of the most stunning and moving war memorials in the Southeast.
It reads: “Special Thanks to J.R. “Chief” Wages for His Dedication to the Veterans Memorial Park. Without His Efforts This Park Would Not Have Been Possible.”
Wages just says, “It’s not about me.”
The bricks make a visit to the area a somber, poignant exercise — permanent reminders that William Morris and 4,880 other Georgians died in World War II, B.P. Castel Jr. and 738 others in Korea, Michael England and 1,587 others in Vietnam, Thomas Thigpen and 142 others in Iraq and 50 in Afghanistan.
“It is a very moving thing,” says Votta. “These people gave their lives for us.”
Post 201 pays for bricks for Georgians killed in uniform. There’s room for 7,000 more that can be purchased for $50 and bear the name of any service member, living or dead, by mail from Post 21 at 201 Wills Road, Alpharetta, 30009, or on the Internet at www.legion201.org.
“The city of Alpharetta provided us with $25,000 in funds, the state of Georgia $40,000,” Farrell says. “Most of the project has been done with donated money, materials, labor and even equipment. We are all volunteers. And Chief is a good arm twister.”
The military hardware is on permanent loan from the U.S. military.
Wages served in the Navy in WWII, then 23 years in the Army, including three tours in Korea and one in Vietnam.