BELDING — Denny Craycraft can still hear the mortar blasts, the rapid fire of gunshots, and the screams of his fellow soldiers — all the horrors of war that encompassed him on a daily basis while fighting in Vietnam nearly half a century ago.
Craycraft, now a chimney sweep who operates his own business in Eureka Township with his son, served two tours of duty half a world away, but the memories still haunt him.
“I have never been able to figure out how I got back from Vietnam, especially with all the close brushes I had with death,” Craycraft said. “Did I recover? Mentally? No. Physically? Yes, I suppose.”
From 1967 to 1969, Craycraft battled overseas in a war that saw 2,654 Michigan veterans lose their lives. He nearly was one of them.
On his first tour of duty while serving at Tungsten Air Base during the TET offensive, Craycraft was riding on a truck with seven other soldiers when the unimaginable happened.
The truck had been booby trapped with explosives. Without notice, it exploded into a fiery rage of death and destruction.
Craycraft survived the blast, receiving severe shrapnel injuries on the majority of his body, but five of his comrades were not so fortunate.
Craycraft eventually recovered from his injuries, but not from the anguish of losing the men he lovingly called his brothers.
On his second tour of duty serving near the Cambodian border, Craycraft was working a mobile patrol. He was helping a fellow soldier unload ammunition crates from a plane when he saw several mortars fired in his direction. He signaled to the soldier, who couldn’t hear the mortar firings or blasts due to the roar of the plane’s engines.
“The planes don’t turn their engines off, you can’t hear when it’s coming,” Craycraft said. “You see an explosion, and you realize you are going to get the (expletive) kicked out of you. You try run to that bunker as fast as you can.”
The soldier took off running and made it safely to the bunker, but Craycraft was not so lucky.
“I was blown off the forklift from the blast,” he said. “I was carrying about 15,000 pounds of explosives.”
Craycraft again received shrapnel down his side and down his leg, but was fortunate to survive yet another war injury.
“I saw a lot worse than what happened to me, every day,” he said. “You really don’t consider yourself to be injured unless you’re missing a body part.”
To this day, Craycraft has always possessed a sense of guilt about surviving, for being able to come home between tours and marry his wife, Ruth; to start a family and live out his days while so many others who served were not given that opportunity.
But now, Craycraft has a new vision, and if that vision comes to fruition, he will be able to sleep at night knowing he has done everything he can to honor his fallen brothers.
A memorial like no other
For more than three years Craycraft has campaigned for several war memorials in Belding.
His efforts, along with those of the Belding Freedom Wall Committee, have led to monuments honoring veterans from World War II, the Korean War, and, soon to be unveiled, World War I with individual monuments at Belding Veterans Park,which was established in 2012.
At Tuesday evening’s Belding City Council meeting, Craycraft unveiled his next project. He showcased a monument that will likely double in cost of anything that has been placed at the park to date, a Vietnam War monument that will not only honor local veterans from Greenville and Belding, but all 2,654 Michigan veterans who lost their lives in the war.
Included in Craycraft’s designs are a large wall, standing 6 feet in height, designed as two large wings approximately 20 feet in width, which would include the name of every Michigan veteran killed in the war.
In front of that wall would sit a monument cut in the shape of Vietnam, featuring a map of the country so visitors and veterans alike can see where battles took place.
Standing before the previous two monuments would be a third monument, a bronze field cross surrounded by 12 granite pillars, one for each local veteran who was killed in the war (five soldiers from Belding and seven soldiers from Greenville).
“We’re going to be the only city in Michigan that’s going to have a monument like this, it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” Craycraft said. “Our veterans will be able to touch, to point to the locations on the monument where they served.
“I’m excited, I think this can happen,” he said. “I’ve got the plan, I’ve just got to get it moving now.”
Craycraft said the total cost of the Vietnam War memorial project would come close to $100,000; however, he doesn’t believe funding will be an issue.
To date, more than $140,000 has been raised through donations to create the Belding Veterans Park, which features the WWII Freedom Wall, Korean War Monument, and All Services monument.
On Aug. 31, the World War I monument, along with a second monument dedicated to the lone Belding veteran who died in the war, Hugo Fales, will be dedicated at the park at 6 p.m., making it the fourth monument to be placed at the park since its inception just two-and-a-half years ago.
“We wanted to make the park unique, to give it something that no other park has,” Craycraft said. “The people of these communities have made this possible. To see how grateful they are that we are creating something to remember our veterans. Belding never had a veterans park, and now we’re building something to remember not just Belding veterans, but all veterans. Our goal is to honor and respect all veterans.”
A long road ahead
Craycraft has only gone as far as to showcase his next big idea, as the reality of the new monument is still a ways down the road. He will likely need approval from several agencies, as the park property is owned by the city but maintained by the Michigan Department of Transportation.
The nearby Fred Meijer River Valley Rail Trail, which runs just north of the park, will likely mean there are regulations with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to abide by.
But Craycraft is confident his vision will become reality, predicting Memorial Day of 2016 as a hopeful date of completion.
“I think this park, it’s brought the town a little bit closer together,” he said. “I think your average veteran on the street has felt they weren’t properly appreciated, but now with the communities in the surrounding areas having stepped up to make this possible, I think they are very proud to say the are veterans.”
Belding Mayor Ron Gunderson agreed that the new monument would be a large and positive addition to the city, but advised to exercise caution and not leap too far forward too quickly.
“There’s still a lot to figure out going forward, but I know it will benefit the community and honor our veterans,” he said.
Gunderson said logistically a project of this size will likely take time to be approved through the proper authorities, but he sees the potential of the monument as a “great thing for the community.”
“We, as a council, are very grateful for everything Denny has done with the Veterans Park,” he said. “With the bike trail, the skate park, the veterans park — all of our recent recreational enhancements — it’s all going to create more traffic and bring more people into Belding. It’s going to bring people downtown.”
On Aug. 31, Belding will celebrate and honor the memory of local WWI veterans with a chicken barbecue dinner from noon to 5 p.m. at the park, which is located west of the Pere Marquette Depot on Depot Street. The dinner is free, but donations, with all proceeds going to the park and monuments, are appreciated.
A remaining $1,800 is needed to pay off the remaining balance of the $7,300 WWI monument, which will be dedicated after the dinner at 6 p.m.
After that, Craycraft will do what he’s done every time a monument has been placed on site — move on to the next one.
“This is kind of a medicine for me,” he said. “Now I know why I got back from the war. This park is my medicine, it’s my way to give back to the brothers I lost.”
For more information or to donate, call Craycraft at (616) 550-6990.