Veterans’ voices to resound at expanded History Center park

Clifford Dunaway is 92 now, but he remembers with absolute clarity that inky night as a 22-year-old sailor aboard the USS Atlanta off Guadalcanal Island when “all hell broke loose.”

The cruiser was torpedoed, soon to sink, and he was among the survivors who took to life rafts that bobbed vulnerably in the Pacific for interminable hours until rescue well after daybreak.

Dunaway wants others, particularly young people, to remember, too.

“I just think that it’s history,” the Morrow man said in a voice sandpapered by age. “I think that they should know, know how to appreciate the United States. They’ve taken it out of the schoolbooks and the younger people don’t know.”

That’s why Dunaway volunteered for a videotaped interview by the Atlanta History Center, one of 400 with World War II veterans that the Buckhead institution has conducted over the past decade as part of the Veterans History Project of the Library of Congress.

On Monday, the History Center is announcing exclusively in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a new use for those interviews that will bring stories like Dunaway’s to light and life. The center plans to build a much larger Veterans Park to replace the modest one that opened at the intersection of West Paces Ferry Road and Slaton Drive in 2000.

When it reopens next Memorial Day weekend, Veterans Park will give visitors the opportunity to meet heroes such as Dunaway via their smartphones and tablets. After they scan a code on interactive information panels detailing each branch of the armed forces, a window will open on their screens with three-minute videos, photos and additional information about each veteran.

Seals for each of the armed service branches will be embedded in the park’s wide sidewalk in the shadow of American and POW-MIA flags waving high above. Tranquil water fountains will frame the reflective setting of a memorial more up to the minute than any other in the state.

On a newly carved public gathering space stretching between this commemorative area and the Centennial Olympic Games Museum, visitors on the Saturday before Memorial Day will be able to attend an annual “Military Timeline” event covering American conflicts from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan, touch military trucks and shake the hands of soldiers from conflicts dating to World War II.

The Home Depot Foundation is donating $500,000 to renovate and enhance the park, which will grow from a quarter-acre to three-quarters of an acre and serve as a more welcoming pedestrian entry to the center’s leafy 33-acre campus. Groundbreaking is expected in January.

“It’s so much more than we ever envisioned, with the History Center adding technology to tell the story,” said Max Torrence, a leader of the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association, which funded a monument around which Veterans Park originally was constructed, and a member of a military board advising on its renewal. “It will remind visitors that freedom is not free, that veterans have paid the price of freedom since 1776.”

The center has plenty of raw material from which to draw. In addition to more than 400 hours of videotaped interviews with World War II veterans, it has recorded more than 40 interviews as part of a Vietnam Veterans Legacy Project.

“A lot of veterans have a hard time talking about their service, and their families don’t know a lot about what they’ve gone through,” said Torrence, who flew helicopters in Vietnam and retired as an Army lieutenant colonel in 1988 after 22 years of duty. “In the oral history project, the veteran gets to tell his story.” (When Veterans Park opens, the same interviews available on-site will be accessible on the History Center’s website.)

Dunaway, who was a gun striker helping maintain one of the USS Atlanta’s gun turrets, sobbed briefly during his History Center interview.

“Sometimes I get a little bit upset,” he acknowledged, though on a recent morning he spoke of the “slaughter” of fellow sailors that historic night in the Pacific theater in a straightforward way. “It lives with you all through your life, not just on special occasions. It’s something you just never forget.”

Longtime History Center volunteer and board member Sheffield Hale fast-tracked the Veterans Park expansion when he was appointed president and CEO in March — giving it priority amid an ongoing $22 million capital campaign to make the center more current and compelling.

“Veterans are a huge constituency, a growing constituency particularly because of the [recent military] conflicts — people that we want to connect to each other, to the community and to our institution,” Hale said.

With the vision that it would quickly grow to include memorials to other wars, the park was dedicated in 2000 with the fanfare of a color guard and an Air Force aircraft flyover. After 9/11, Atlantans made it an impromptu memorial ground to lives lost in the terrorism, planting hundreds of small red, white and blue flags.

That gave center leaders a sense of the park’s potential, but competing funding priorities and then a feeble economy confined various plans to paper.

When Hale decided to make the project a priority, the question was whether to add more memorials to specific wars, as originally envisioned, or to take a different tack. When senior military historian Gordon Jones researched America’s various engagements, the printout was 30 pages long.

Project landscape architect Mack Cain, a Marine veteran, scanned it in July and responded with a one-sentence e-mail: “Looks like we may need a bigger monument. :-)”

The History Center then enlisted an advisory panel that includes 10 representatives from wars in Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

Staffers also began gathering intelligence on military parks and memorials around the state, including one dominated by a statue of three soldiers at the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Veterans Memorial Building downtown and a World War I commemorative marker in Midtown’s Pershing Point Park.

“What we found was that they were either dedicated to a specific time, dedicated to the fallen only or dedicated to the ‘tip of the spear’ — showing soldiers fighting,” said Jackson McQuigg, the center’s vice president of properties. “What we wanted to create was a dynamic space that people can actually utilize.”

Center leaders intend for the public gathering space abutting the memorial to be used for military-themed programs (among events of all stripes), veterans ceremonies and as a green spot where the public can visit for free, lunching at picnic tables dotting the landscaped grounds.

“There’s nothing else like it in Atlanta,” Torrence said. “People will come there to celebrate and to find a place to think about those who made the sacrifice over the years. I think it will stand the test of time.”

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