Dennis Hirschbrunner hoped that renovations for the Andrew Jackson Higgins Memorial at Pawnee Park would be complete just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, also known as D-Day.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t ready to meet Hirschbrunner’s exact specifications.

“We would have liked to have had a ceremony here recognizing the 75th anniversary, and then we would have had a program at the Ramada (Hotel and River’s Edge Convention Center), but we were just too compressed for time and we couldn’t get this done,” Hirschbrunner said.

Despite missing out on what would have been a stirring celebration of the American spirit, Hirschbrunner said that the upgrades to the memorial are going smoothly. The expectation is that the project should be completed by the end of June.

The renovations came about after years of neglect to the facility, which was established in 2001 as the brainchild of Jerry Meyer, a former history teacher at Columbus High School. Students in one of his history classes discovered that Higgins, creator of the boats used to dispatch soldiers to important beach battles during World War II, was a Columbus native. As such, they wanted to do something to honor Higgins in town and the memorial was eventually built.

As the years went on, many key pieces of the original memorial began to decay, such as the replica Higgins boat that was the centerpiece. Statues of soldiers and Higgins himself also started rusting.

“We finally got the old sculptures (designed) with the same materials (and) texture as the National Guard and Reserves statue,” Hirschbrunner said. “They’re bronzes, but an industrious (person) - whose name shall remain anonymous - decided to put some kind of coating on it, which he shouldn’t have done. It just mottled on there. It did not look good.”

Thus, the first task was to bring back the original designer of the statues, Fred Hoppe, who upgraded the overall design of the statues. Now, they shimmer in the sunlight with not a spot of rust on them.

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“They all needed to be upgraded and refurbished,” Hirshbrunner said. “All of the sculptures are redone and they look great. We probably won’t have to do anything with them for quite a while.”

The replica boat also received a new cleaning, as it was power washed, sandblasted and received a new coat of paint. Cranes were required to lift the boat up from the sandy ground that it shares with the statues of the soldiers in order for it to be cleaned from top to bottom. That particular mission remains incomplete, as the crane needed to restore it to its original position is not currently available.

“When the crane’s available again, they’ll come back down and put a barrier between the concrete base and the bottom of the boat,” Hirschbrunner said. “Just to make sure we minimize or eliminate any rusting that happens to the boat.”

Platte County provided $31,000 in grants to support the refurbishment. The bricks that line the memorial have not been affected, and Hirschbrunner estimates that 2,000-3,000 people will come to the memorial this year. Unfortunately, the addition of new bricks has been delayed.

“We normally put the bricks up sometime before Memorial Day,” said Chris Dixon, who, along with his wife, leads the bricklaying operation for the memorial. “We’ve got about 30 of them to be put up, (but) our bricklayers are busy with the police station and they don’t have time to volunteer. It’s a volunteer thing, and (they) said that they couldn’t get them up before Memorial Day.”

Still, everything should be complete for Fourth of July celebrations, with a possible rededication coming for Veterans Day. Even though they couldn’t remember the 75th anniversary of D-Day, with a fresh, new look for the Memorial, Hirschbrunner said that many younger people without an impression of World War II can learn a lot of what happened on the beaches of Normandy in France.

“It’s a great reminder of the sacrifices that were made, both by people who survived and people who didn’t survive,” Hirschbrunner said. “Even more importantly, for the younger generation that hasn’t had a lot of exposure to World War II, to Korea, even to Vietnam, it is a learning experience for them to come down here and learn about these boats and these sculptures and the reason that we’re free.”

Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at zroth@columbustelegram.com

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