In one of the most poignant tales related to Barton County’s Golden Belt Veterans Memorial project, county Administrative Secretary Diana Watson said the story of Roy Fruit Jr. stands out.
Fruit was a Great Bend youth and one-time Great Bend Tribune paperboy and employee who died after storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day during World War II.
And, on Sunday morning, not far from that very French coastline, there was a Memorial Day service held among the field of white marble crosses marking the graves of Fruit and the others killed during the invasion.
“This morning the Memorial Day ceremony took place at Normandy American Cemetery,” said Jean Marc Lesueur, a Frenchman who has tended to Fruit’s burial site for many years. “The sky was sunny with no wind. It was the prettiest ceremony of the last 10 years.”
The ceremony included the playing of the “The Marseillaise” and the “Star Spangled Banner,” and a fly-over by planes from the British Royal Airforce. There were also addresses from local dignitaries and Lt, Gen. John Kolasheski, commander of the U.S. Army V Corps.
Back in 2016, Barton County, through its Facebook page, asked the public to sponsor memorial engravings for vets who no longer had family in the area. One soldier selected for this campaign was Fruit, the son of Great Bend Tribune owner Roy Fruit Sr., who enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II. Private First Class Fruit died on a French battlefield on July 14, 1944.
Fruit’s family conducted an internet search for information about Roy and this also led them to contact Lesueur, who had became an email pal with Watson. So, the family ultimately reached out to the County Administrator’s Office.
“I’m always touched by the commitment of Jean Marc to our fallen soldiers,” Watson said. “Without fail, he tells me how grateful he (and he indicates his fellow citizens) are that Americans were there to help in World War II.
“This is how they repay us – by honoring our lost military,” she said. “That’s not just being a patriot, that’s being a citizen of the world. To be honored like that is a true testament to American efforts.”
Learning that Fruit was included on the county’s memorial, the family donated $250 for future engravings, Watson said.
It was in February that Watson announced to the county commission that enough lines had been purchased to secure the fourth stone.
Now, the memorial will include 1,480 names. They range from the Civil War though today, and include the five main branches of the military, along with the Nursing Corps, she said.
Of those, 49 soldiers were killed in action, at least one was missing in action and there are seven prisoners of war.
Bids have been taken and the hope is to have the stone in place by year’s end.
In 2016, side one of stone four was purchased by the Hoisington VFW 7428 when it closed, and 200 lines were dedicated to veterans from Hoisington and that area.
Stone three was dedicated on Veterans Day in 2018. On April 23, 2018, the commission approved the purchase of the third stone at a cost of $23,024. At the time, they had half the names needed for stone four. When the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Hoisington disbanded, members contributed money from the chapter to purchase 200 lines.
At $45 per line, 540 (about 370 veterans) had to be sold before each of the stones could be ordered.
Stone three took longer than the others and was started in 2016. It had become more challenging to find vets with county connections, Watson said.
The second stone was dedicated on Veterans Day in 2016, and the first stone on Veterans Day the year before. But, the project dates back to 2012 when the idea of a memorial was first raised.
The memorial, located in the county-operated Golden Belt Memorial Park north of Great Bend, honors veterans with Barton County ties who have served in all conflicts and in all branches of the military. Qualifications to be included are proof that the veteran was at least at one time a Barton County resident and received an honorable discharge from the military. The veteran can be living or deceased, and active-duty service members are also eligible.
It stands at 59 NW 50 Rd.