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Bridge dedicated to 'true hero' and all veteransPatriot Day a fitting time to honor, remember sacrifice
Medal of Honor recipient Robert D. Maxwell of Bend said he was proud to share honor of renamed bridge with all veterans of past, present and future. (Photo by: Barney Lerten)
By Barney Lerten
September 11 - It wasn’t a sunny day, but the gray clouds seemed to set just the right, serious tone, even at a spot by the Deschutes River, between Sunriver and La Pine, where people usually gather to boat, fish, camp, picnic and just generally relax and have fun.
Several dozen people, many in uniform, assembled Saturday by the Big River Campground, by a boat launch between two bridges, to formally dedicate the 20-year-old span that carries South Century Drive over the Deschutes as the Robert D. Maxwell Veterans Memorial Bridge.
The day chosen was special, too: Patriot Day, three years after the horrific terrorist attacks on the United States, one of many events held across Central Oregon and the nation to remember the lost lives and the mission not yet completed. And though the clouds threatened, the rain held off until after all the brief speeches, the many handshakes and the countless photos.
In a way, this honor at this bridge, months in the making, was a bookend to another, similar bridge dedication a year ago, at the north end of the High Desert, that named the new bridge over the Crooked River the Rex T. Barber Veterans Memorial Bridge (www.bend.com/AR-10929), honoring not just the man who shot down Admiral Yamamoto, but all veterans.
There was one happy difference about Saturday’s ceremony: It wasn’t a posthumous dedication. Maxwell, 83, the last living Congressional Medal of Honor recipient living in Oregon, smiled as he led a short parade across the bridge, followed by the La Pine JROTC color guard and the rumble of veterans on their motorcycles, joining his wife Bea and dozens of family members for the special day.
The Bend resident’s spotlight glared only sporadically until recent years, when fellow veterans and a difficult time for the nation seemed to draw him out for a variety of honors, parades and events, one of the most recent being his receipt on June 6, the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, of France’s highest decoration, the Legion of Honor.
Through it all, Maxwell has remained gracious and humble, posing for countless photos, signing countless autographs, speaking when asked and seeming to welcome all the attention – not just for him, but for the millions of veterans who came before and after.
Maxwell’s story has been told and retold, focusing on that day just over 60 years ago: Sept. 7, 1944, when the Army technician fifth grade, his unit surrounded by German soldiers near Besancon, in southern France, saved the lives of three fellow 3rd Infantry Division soldiers by throwing himself on a hand grenade, using on a blanket and his body to absorb the full force of the explosion. He has credited “some form of divine providence” for the fact he survived, though not without permanent injuries.
Indeed, the city of Bend and Deschutes County proclaimed Sept. 7 “Bob Maxwell Day” this year, and. But the speakers at Saturday’s event said Maxwell’s life, before and after that climactic event, also make him a fitting symbol of how one meaning of the word “dedication” intersects so closely with the other.
The city proclamation listed some of the other reasons to honor Maxwell as a symbol of America’s strength: his 30-year teaching career, begun at Bend High, specializing in auto mechanics. How he was named one of the nation’s outstanding educators in 1970, and has spoken on patriotism at numerous schools and civic and veterans groups.
Just 500 feet downstream from the newly named bridge is an older, wooden span called the “General Patch” bridge, named for Gen. Alexander Patch, who commanded the 4th Army Corps and oversaw the “Oregon Maneuver, mock battles in seven High Desert counties during 1943, to prepare soldiers for combat in North Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
Some 200,000 troops took part, many of them combat engineers based at Camp Abbot, where Sunriver now stands. During their training, they completed the bridge over the Deschutes, begun by the U.S. Forest Service. An interpretive sign placed by the boat launch between the two bridges notes that Patch and Maxwell never met, but their fates did intertwine: Patch recommended that Maxwell receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery that day; President Franklin Roosevelt signed the papers shortly before his death in April 1945.
Day of speeches, flags and salutes
Boy Scouts from Bend’s Troop 21 held a row of American flags, borrowed from Redmond (“Flag City USA,”) as the backdrop for Saturday’s brief ceremony.
“We just thank God for all these beautiful young people,” said Redmond fire and police Chaplain Vern Arledge in the invocation. “We pray for all the men and women – past, present and future – who have fought for our nation, and are fighting now. … Their sacrifices give us courage. Their devotion reminds us what we are fighting for – freedom.”
“May every man, woman and child who crosses this bridge be reminded of the awesome price our men and women have paid, and are paying,” Arledge said. “Use us to remember that liberty always comes with a price – blood, sweat and tears.”
Commissioner Mike Daly welcomed the crowd and made the introductions of several people, including two who lied about their age and entered the service when they were just 14 and 16.
Val Conley of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs sent Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s regrets that he couldn’t attend the event.
“I believe that sacrifice is the pinnacle of freedom,” Conley said, thanking those who made those sacrifices so we could “live in the strongest, freest, greatest nation in the history of the world.”
State Rep. Gene Whisnant called Maxwell “a true hero,” but “also a humble man” and good citizen. Bend-Fort Rock Ranger Walt Schloer told the story of General Patch and the bridge that bears his name. And retired Air Force Col. David Fairclo, chairman of the Central Oregon Veterans Council, read Maxwell’s Medal of Honor citation, before the man of the hour got up to speak.
Maxwell noted how when he and his wife often fished this stretch of river, and that “I never dreamed anything like this would happen, for the veterans of Deschutes County.”
War on terrorism called ‘World War III’
Maxwell paid thanks to the engineers who helped make sure he and many other veterans got where they needed to go in Europe. And he thanked veterans activist and “spark plug” Dick Tobiason, not on hand this day, who “started it all off” on the effort to rename the bridge, along with Fairclo as his “faithful sidekick.”
“Veterans are everywhere,” Maxwell said. “Deschutes County hosts a goodly number of them.” And he spoke of that Sept. 11 three years ago as the start of “World War III,” the War on Terrorism. Of the heroes that day, he singled out those aboard Flight 93, who became “self-sacrificing heroes” by thwarting plans to fly that fourth hijacked plane into Washington, and perhaps into the Capitol or White House.
The Medal of Honor winner said the war veterans coming home today deserve more than just thanks and gratitude. For example, he said, “We’d better make sure they come back to the job that they left – or a better one.”
“When there’s trouble around the world, America comes to the rescue,” Maxwell said.
Soon, it was time to take protective cover off a temporary version of the interpretive sign erected between the two bridges, with the portraits and stories of both Maxwell and Patch, as well as look at the Congressional Medal of Honor. “A Tale of Two Bridges,” reads the sign designed by Forest Service artist Dennis McGregor of Sisters. (The permanent, weather-proof version will be installed soon.)
Daly explained to the crowd that there had been “nothing in the county code about changing the name of a bridge,” so they used the ordinance that deals with streets to get it done. And he called it one of the greatest moments in his time as commissioner. (Daly, by the way, was not joined by his two colleagues this day, though his Democratic challenger, Randy Gordon, was in the crowd and was among the many to meet and congratulate Maxwell.)
Among the relatives posing with Maxwell was a long-lost first cousin, Opal Maddox of Forest Grove, who said she only had reconnected with her cousin three years ago. She’s written a small book on what she termed an amazing, previously untold story that includes the fact that Maxwell was kidnapped by his grandmother when he was about 10. Maxwell has agreed to help create a fuller recounting of what he called “a part of my life I let go quiet for a long time.”
After a walk up to the bridge, to pose for more pictures by the sign with his name, Maxwell was asked how this day ranked, among the special days in his life.
“It’s pretty close to the top,” he said, along with the birth of his four daughters – two of which he wasn’t home to witness.
© 2005, by The Bend Bugle
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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