A living memorial at UCA

Recent Conway High School graduate Sarah Kemp at one of the World War II Memorial trees. (Mike Kemp photo)

by Sarah Kemp

Imagine a frigid December in Arkansas. You’re partway into your first semester of college. The country is in a time of economic hardship and a war is raging in the Eastern Hemisphere, but your main concerns are your grades and social life. You can’t imagine the war will ever reach America, so it is no concern to you. 

In a day, everything changes. An attack occurs on American soil; people are panicking, wondering if there will be another attack. Suddenly, the president has declared war on one of the major fighters in the East. Its allies declare war on us, and you are faced with a decision: do you go to war and risk dying for your country, or do you stay where you are and try to finish your education, doing your best to ignore the war?

This was the decision college students faced after Dec. 7, 1941: the day Japanese forces bombed American naval ships at Pearl Harbor. Sometimes these students didn’t even have a choice, as 61.2 percent were draftees. 

This included students at Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas). Many students left behind their education to join the war effort.

UCA Director of Archives Jimmy Bryant provided student enrollment numbers that reflected a steady drop from when the United States entered the war (1941) to when the war ended (1945):

Fall of 1941 – 764

1941-1942 – 500

1942-1943 – 422

1943-1944 – 289

1944-1945 – 355

1945-1946 – 498

1946-1947 – 1,061

Enrollment only increased in the 1945-1946 academic year, after the war had ended and the surviving veterans had returned home. However, of the brave souls that fought in the war, not all were able to return home. According to the UCA War Memorial website, 47 alumni died while serving their country.

As some of the soldiers were buried in a foreign land, ASTC created a living memorial to recognize the supreme sacrifice while also giving families a place where they could go to honor their loved one. According to the Living Tree Memorial brochure, initially only 38 trees were planted in 1946, with more being added as more alumni that died in service were identified.

This would seem to be where the story ends. The war was over, and those who had died had been memorialized. But as UCA’s Dr. Gayle Seymour could tell you, the story was far from over.

Seymour is an art history professor and UCA associate dean. She is also a chairperson for the UCA Public Art Committee. She wanted to mark the trees before the memory of them faded away. Already many of the original trees had been lost, either because they had died or because they had been foolishly cut down. Due to this, many people were against marking the trees. If they didn’t have all of the originals, then what was the point? Seymour couldn’t disagree more. What mattered to her was the spirit of the memorial, not the physical aspect.

When asked what they should do when a tree dies, she simply replied, “We’ll plant a new one!”

On Nov. 10, 2015, plaques were placed in front of every tree bearing the name of the soldier it was dedicated to. Each plaque shows a simplistic logo: the leaf of a white oak surrounded by 47 dots (one for each fallen soldier).

Much thought went into the design of these plaques, including accessibility and height. “I knew they couldn’t be on the trees, because veterans would want to look at them and some of them may have mobility issues.” She made sure the plaques were close to the sidewalk, and that they were at the right height to be easily seen from a wheelchair. The plaques are not garishly adorned; in fact, they are quite simplistic in design. To the reader they present the name of the soldier and a number to serve as an identifier on the website.

This is where Dr. Donna Bowman of the UCA Schedler Honors College enters the story. She told me how she had seen the bronze plaques, and they inspired her. “There were names there, but no information about the people,” she said, explaining that she decided that her Honors College students should conduct research on each person. The information would then be added to a website that honored the alumni.

The website project clearly became a labor of love for all parties involved. The first project to give the soldiers an identity began in 2016. Researchers faced challenges as many of the alumni killed in the war died in their early to mid-20s and had no children, no legacy to tell and explain who they were. Furthermore, in the 1946 dedication program, some of the information was incorrect including the spellings of names, ranks and military branch.

Indeed, this website became a quest to find the truths of these people. But why put forth so much effort? Why is it so important to know who these people were as individuals? Bowman’s explanation was, “If we don’t remember them as individuals, it’s like we’ve killed them all over again.”

I can attest that giving a face and a life to these names makes the trees come alive. On one occasion, the plaque of Opie Chick caught my eye. I couldn’t remember his branch or when he died, but I remembered one thing: his face. He had a round face, and in his picture on the website he wears a gentle smile. His eyes seem kind. Opie Chick was killed in action in Normandy, France, in 1944 at age 34. He left behind a wife, Ruby Threlkeld Chick, and his 4-year-old child, Wesley

I encourage you to take a moment and look at the website (honors.uca.edu/memorial). Look at each veteran, his birth year and when he died. A sad trend emerges: many of these people were in their early to mid-20s when they died.

Look at the pictures of those soldiers. Their features tend to be soft, their faces not yet wrinkled from age. They were in the prime of their lives, with goals and aspirations, and dreams that they were working to achieve. All of that potential was lost when they died.

If we don’t remember who they were, what they lived for and what they died for, then it’s as if we have killed them a second time over.

We must remember the individuals who gave their lives to preserve our freedom and the freedom of others around the world.

If we don’t remember the individual sacrifices that were given in this war, then we become desensitized to it. Each death is just another statistic, and we cease to see the significance. In the grand scheme of things, these 47 deaths didn’t change the tide of the war or bring about the defeat of the Axis powers. But to the mother, the father, the brother or sister, lover, spouse, dear friend… to these people, those 47 deaths meant they had lost a piece of their world. Remember the individual; remember their story.