VETERANS MEMORIAL PARK
North Bend, Nebraska
The North Bend-Morse Bluff Veterans Memorial Park honors all veterans who have served in the Armed Forces. Plaques and bronze sculptures represent each branch of the military. The park and bronze sculptures were designed by Nebraska native Fred Hoppe who has designed other bronze statues located at the University of Nebraska Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
The sculpture of the soldier on bended knee is modeled after Ralph Groten, a WWII airborne paratrooper. Groten and three of his closest friends were separated after they jumped from their transport plane during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. After three days of fighting, Groten tried finding his friends. Not having any luck, he eventually started looking at the temporary graves that were set up (helmet on top of a gun and dog tag). He would get down on one knee to check the tags. Eventually he found that all three of his friends had been killed.
It’s a moment in history — captured in bronze. The sculpture depicts a soldier kneeling near a helmet-topped rifle that marks a grave. With a solemn expression, the soldier reaches not for the weapon, but toward the dog tag attached to it.
To area residents, the statue provides the finishing touch to the North Bend-Morse Bluff Veteran’s Memorial Park. To visitors, it is a continual reminder of the high cost of freedom.
Sylvia Slavik of North Bend donated money for the statue in memory of her husband, Henry; in honor of her son, Ed, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1958-59 and in celebration of her 100th birthday on July 20.
“I’d better do something before I pass away,” Slavik said. “I didn’t know it was going to be that pretty. I didn’t know it was going to have all that detail. It’s takes a lot of work to make a statue like that. It’s isn’t easy, but it’s beautiful.”
Fred Hoppe of Columbus, who designed the park at Ninth and Main streets a few years ago, sculpted this and other statues in North Bend’s park.
Many Nebraskans are familiar with Hoppe’s bronze sculptures which include the mammoth in front of Morrill Hall in Lincoln and those of Husker Athletic Director and former coach Tom Osborne and Husker quarterback Brook Berringer on the north side of Memorial Stadium. Hoppe, a Schuyler native, sculpted the Husker Legacy statue on the stadium’s east side in 1997.
The new sculpture in North Bend’s park has its own unique story.
Hoppe previously was asked to create a sculpture to honor men in an airborne division who trained at Fort Benning, Ga., for the D-Day invasion during World War II.
He talked to Ralph Groten, who along with three other men, were inseparable throughout their training. The parachuted men sat side by side on the transport plane on June 6, 1944. They leaped from the plane, but Groten never saw the others when they hit the ground.
After a break in the fighting on June 9, Groten began asking everyone if they’d seen his friends.
“He assumed they had split up and were with other groups,” Hoppe said.
No one had seen his buddies.
Groten walked miles trying to find them. Eventually, he gave up that search and started looking for temporary graves. Groten said he probably looked at 50 graves — marked with a helmet atop a gun and a dog tag. He would get down on one knee to check the tag.
In time, he found that all three had been killed.
Groten later became friends with a brother of one of the men. The brother provided Hoppe with the number from the fallen airman’s dog tag. Hoppe, in turn, would put that number on the dog tag of the sculpture.
To create the statue, Hoppe first had a young man dress in an original uniform. He photographed the man kneeling, comparing those photographs with actual ones from the war. While sculpting the work of art, Hoppe paid close attention to detail, noticing how the soldier’s boot bent as he knelt and the way the jacket laid on his pants.
The statue was placed at the gates at Fort Benning.
More recently, Hoppe learned that Slavik wanted a statue for the east side of North Bend’s park.
He knew the statue of the kneeling soldier would work well.
So a second casting was made of the kneeling-soldier statue in bronze at a foundry in Oregon. North Bend residents Doug Wamberg and Dale Kinney drove there and brought it back to Nebraska. Along the way, they stopped at veterans and legion clubs, allowing vets to see the statue and even take photographs of it.
The statue was installed in the park in late April — in plenty of time for Memorial Day and then for the Old Settlers celebration in June.
Ed Slavik is pleased with the statue.
“I think it’s a breath-taking statue,” he said. “It’s really touching. It finishes up the park.”
His mother agrees.
“Everybody likes it,” she said. “It fits in there real nice.”
And unlike other part statues that honor living veterans, this artwork commemorates those who have died, Hoppe said.
The idea for the park began to develop in 2002, said Butch Ott, chairman of the Veterans Memorial Park Committee.
Jim Kruger, a North Bend High School graduate, and his wife, Sandra, donated 2 and a half lots along with funds for the park. Volunteers took out an old basement on the site. Local farmers leveled off the lot, Ott said.
Hoppe worked with area residents on the park and fundraisers.
“I’ve never seen a town back a park like this,” Hoppe said. “For a small town, what they’ve done is phenomenal.”
Hoppe, whose father, Fred Sr., was a World War II veteran, created the park’s other statues.
In the center is a statue of five combat men surrounded by granite benches, flags, memorial bricks and landscaping. Two other statues depict people who serve in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, respectively, with a third dedicated to women who served in the Armed Forces.
Hoppe, who estimated he spent about 400 hours on the kneeling statue alone, believes it fits in well, not blocking the view from the other statues, but instead leading the eye up to them.
“You couldn’t have put in anything better to make it flow. It stair steps up to the big ones,” he said.
He also commends area residents.
“We need more people like the Slaviks and people in North Bend who want to honor our veterans, because without veterans we wouldn’t have freedom — and without freedom we wouldn’t have anything,” he said.
Fremont Tribune – Tammy Real-McKeighan/News Editor
9th & Main Sts
North Bend, NE 68649