BELDING — For several moments Sunday morning, Belding resident and World War II veteran John Geisen stood quietly just a few feet in front of the new Belding Freedom Wall memorial as people shuffled around him.
Staring at the newly dedicated wall, built in memory of area WWII veterans, Geisen’s eyes began to glass over with tears. With a deep breath, he then took a few steps closer to the wall.
Reaching out his hand, he carefully placed his finger on the wall, pointing to the blue star bearing his own name.
Sixty-eight years ago Geisen landed at Anzio Beach, Italy, where he served as a machine gunner in the United States Army fighting in WWII.
On Sunday, Veterans Day, standing with nine other WWII veterans, he helped remove the black curtain to reveal the reconstructed Belding Freedom Wall, a memorial to the services of the men and women who fought as Geisen did for the freedoms we all enjoy today.
The original Belding Freedom Wall served as a “service board,” updated with the names of those who traveled overseas from the Belding area to fight in WWII. It was located at the corner of Bridge and Main streets and constructed in 1942.
But on Nov. 11, 1948, the wall was decommissioned with one last ceremony as the land was to be used to expand the Gibson factory.
On Sunday, an almost visually identical wall found its new home back in downtown Belding.
“I’ve been a part of this wall ever since the beginning, but we had no idea that we’d ever go this far with it,” Geisen said. “Everyone who has worked on this has done an outstanding job. I have a good reason to be proud because not only is my name on it, but two of my brothers’ names are on it.”
Approximately 250 people gathered at the new memorial for its dedication Sunday morning on Depot Street just west of the Pere Marquette Depot. Bleachers were set up in the street to accommodate the impressive crowd, consisting of many area veterans who had waited years for the memorial to return.
Belding Mayor Ron Gunderson said the new memorial was a great example of the community and city coming together to celebrate as one, despite the difficulties along the long road traveled to make the wall a reality.
“I’m proud that the community came together,” Gunderson said. “I’m proud that, if nothing else, because of the unity and the dedication of the people who put everything forward into this to make it be what it is, now everyone can see this for what it is. These are all people who lost their lives for the simple fact that we could be here today to dedicate this wall.”
Belding resident Denny Craycraft, who spent more than two years collecting funds, working with the city and working countless volunteer hours to make the wall a reality, finally found peace with himself as he watched person after person walk along the wall, marveling at the 726 stars and names on it.
“It has been a very emotional day,” Craycraft said. “There were three occasions fighting in the Vietnam War where I thought I may not come back. I’ve more or less dedicated my time and feelings to help veterans who are less fortunate than I. But I’ve always wanted to know, why did I get to come back home when the brothers I fought with did not? Now I believe making this wall happen in this community was my calling, my reason for coming home.”
Craycraft said he was driven by the veterans who are still alive today, and as recently as Friday he received a grave reminder of how important it was to erect the wall as quickly as he could after he attended the funeral of WWII veteran Jack Rice, a B-24 liberator bomber pilot.
“I was commander of the VFW several years ago and an older veteran gave me a picture of the original wall,” Craycraft said. “For a long time, that picture just sat on my desk, but after a while, I started looking at it closer and wanted to know what happened to it. The more I got into it, the more I realized that wall should have never have been taken down.”
Although the wall is complete, there is still work left to do to complete the surroundings of the monument. According to Craycraft, he is still short $7,000 in funds to complete the remaining portions surroundings the wall and is continuing to sell bricks which are available for $50 and can be engraved with any veteran’s name who has served in any war.
However, Craycraft said he is not worried about finding that remaining $7,000.
“Looking at everything, I surprise myself,” he said. “But then I look at the people who live in this community, who helped make this happen, and I have no reason to be surprised.”
As the Ionia Community Band finished playing and people began to filter away from the new memorial, Craycraft stayed to help clean up, and likely, get back to work on finishing the rest of the monument.
“I will never forget those boys pulling back that curtain, with tears filled in their eyes,” he said. “They closed it 64 years ago and I wanted them to reopen it today, and that’s exactly what they did.”