Neil Wegrzyn came to a stark realization while researching a monument to honor men from the Belleville area killed in the Vietnam War.
“All these guys were young, like me,” he said. “I’m 17, and they were all between 18 and 24. Another year older and I could have been one of them.”
The black granite monument, which lists the names of 15 young men killed in the Vietnam War, will be dedicated as part of Belleville’s Memorial Day services on Monday at Walnut Hill Cemetery. A parade leading up to the service will begin at 10 a.m. from Second and West Main streets, go east on Main past the Veterans Memorial, to Mascoutah Avenue, south on Mascoutah to Walnut Hill Cemetery.
Neil, who will be a senior at Belleville East in the fall, got the idea for the monument during a trip to Washington, D.C., where he saw the national Vietnam War Monument.
“I saw all the names engraved on it, and I wondered how many of them were from the Belleville area,” said Neil, a member of Boy Scout Troop 11 at St. Peter’s Cathedral. “We found 13 or 14 on the official website, and when I began thinking of an Eagle Scout project, that came to mind.”
His plan was approved as an Eagle Scout project two years ago. He has been working tirelessly since, researching newspaper articles, raising money and speaking to VFWs, American Legions and local businesses to gain support for it.
“It turned out to be a bigger project than I thought,” he said. “It took a lot of patience and persistence.”
Within a year, he had raised $1,000, and eventually brought in $4,500.
Neil ordered the black granite monument from Tisch Monuments in Belleville for about $4,200. The rare stone had to be imported from India because Neil wanted it to look like a miniature of the monument in Washington. It’s actually two stones set at an angle of 125 degrees. It’s 36 inches tall.
It is engraved with “All Gave Some, Some Gave All” and the names, birth and death years of 15 men who gave their lives for their country in the Vietnam War: Allen Grey, Pete Hammond, Ronald Roberts, Terry Pensoneau, John Lankford, Charles Geller, James Klopmeyer, Philip Smith, Lawrence Denny, William Thompson, Joseph Wylie III, James Neumeyer, Thomas Irwin, Lawrence Grass and Glenn Eisenhour.
“It turned out great,” said Robert Thomas, commander of VFW Post 1739 in Belleville. “Our post supported Neil’s project in a big way. It’s a great way to remember these young men on Memorial Day and any day. It sits on three feet of concrete provided by the city, so it’s not going anywhere.”
The monument is near the VFW flag on Cypress Avenue at the eastern entrance to the cemetery.
Taylor Pensoneau, of New Berlin, older brother of Terry Pensoneau, plans to attend the dedication. Terry was killed in December 1968 while he was commander of a Marine rifle platoon.
“It is extremely heartfelt that there is a young man who would do such a wonderful thing as this,” said Taylor, former Illinois political writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and author of several books. “I had frequent contact with Neil as he was doing his research. He is one very impressive young man.
“The family of every veteran, not just those killed in Vietnam, should take their hats off to him. I plan to be there and maybe even say a few words.”
Neil is still researching the biographies of the 15 men. He will use the remaining funds to have the biographies printed and distributed to libraries, VFWs and American Legions and family members.
Neil is the son of John and Linda Wegrzyn, of Belleville. He does not have a direct connection to the Vietnam War, but “My grandpa (Joseph) was a tailgunner in the Army Air Corps during World War II,” he said.
Besides his interest in Boy Scouts, Neil plays guitar in the jazz band at Belleville East, and volunteers at Memorial Hospital.
He is already looking ahead to college.
“I like the science field, maybe engineering. Two schools I’m thinking about are Mizzou and Illinois.”
Even thought the monument is in place, Neil will have to wait for that Eagle Scout award, which he hopes comes through by November.
Belleville Memorial Day Parade and Service
- The Memorial Day Association of Belleville will present its 55th parade and memorial ceremony on Monday.
- The association was formed on July 19, 1960, to remember those who have served their country and are deceased. It’s made up of the Korean War Veterans Imjin Chapter, Catholic War Veterans Butz-Jobe Post 370, American Legion George E. Hilgard Post 58 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1739.
- The parade steps off at 10 a.m. at Second and West Main streets, travels east on Main past the Veterans Memorial to Mascoutah Avenue, then south on Mascoutah to Walnut Hill cemetery.
- The parade marshal and speaker will be U.S. Army Col. Michael J. Benjamin, staff judge advocate, U.S. Transportation Command at Scott AFB.
- Groups from all eras of the country’s history, as well as youth, churches and local businesses will be among the 45 units in the parade. The Belleville West Marching Maroons will be the lead parade band and will provide patriotic music for the Memorial service (after the parade at about 11 a.m.) at Walnut Hill Cemetery.
- The service will include the playing of the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, remarks by Col. Benjamin, recognition of deceased veterans and the placing of flags on a wreath, and Taps. The new monument honoring 15 Belleville-area men who were killed in the Vienam War will be dedicated.
Metro-east Memorial Day events
- O’FALLON: The City of O’Fallon’s Veterans Day Ceremony will be at 11:30 a.m. Monday at the Veterans Monument, 737 East Wesley Drive. Air Force Brig. Gen. Randall Reed, deputy director, strategic plans, HQ, AMC, will be the speaker. Also participating in the program are: First Baptist Church Adult Choir; O’Fallon Township High School Air Force Junior ROTC; VFW Post 805; Lauren Lundy, St. Louis Opera Theatre; retired Air Force SMSgt. Craig Bedard; and the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard Rifle Team. In case of inclement weather, the ceremony will be held inside First Baptist Church of O’Fallon, 1111 E. U.S. 50.
- SPARTA: Memorial Day services are at 10 a.m. Monday at Caledonia Cemetery in Sparta. The service will include: the national anthem sung by Monty Jackson; flag raising; Pledge of Allegiance; a musical salute to the armed forces; a floral tribute to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; a volley by a gun squad; the Veterans of Foreign Wars Color Guard; the playing of Taps and Echo. The speaker is Judge Jo Beth Weber, resident circuit judge of Jefferson County and a candidate for 5th District Appellate Court Judge. A potluck dinner will be served at noon for all veterans and their families. In case of inclement weather, the service will be held in American Legion Post 396.
- MOUNT CARMEL CEMETERY: A Memorial Day Mass will be celebrated at 9 a.m. Monday at the outdoor altar in Mount Carmel Cemetery, 10101 West Main St. in Belleville. In case of rain, the Mass will be in Peace Chapel.
- HECKER: Speakers, patriotic music and a flyover will highlight Memorial Day ceremonies at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Augustine’s Cemetery in Hecker. Local veterans and other dignitaries will be recognized. In case of rain, the ceremony will be moved inside the Hecker Community Center.
- FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS: A Memorial Day Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Monday outdoors at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fairview Heights.
- SCOTT AFB: Scott VFW Post 4183 will conduct a Memorial Day program at 9 a.m. Monday at 1516 Old Highway 158 near Belleville. Brig. Gen. Christopher J. Knapp will speak. A reception will follow.
- WATERLOO: Waterloo will hold its Memorial Day Ceremony at 11 a.m. Monday on the Courthouse Square.
- ALTON: You can celebrate Memorial Day by attending the oldest consecutive running parade in the nation. The first was in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War. The parade steps off at 10 a.m. Monday from Washington and College avenues in Alton.