The Huffington Post has chosen Ralph Barrale of Lake Saint Louis, MO as its "Greatest Person of the Day"—an honor recognizing people who confront issues in their community with creativity and passion.)
Ralph Barrale, 88, served under Gen. George Patton in the 3rd Army in World War II, landing at Utah Beach on D-Day. He was at the Battle of the Bulge and at the Remagen Bridge.
"My outfit was front-line military police, combat military. We directed traffic and took in prisoners right behind the infantry," Barrale said.
Barrale has three big scrapbooks filled with commendations and other memorabilia from his years of service, and the walls of the Barrale rec room are covered with framed pictures and awards. Those years of service to his country led Ralph Barrale on a new mission: a campaign for veteran recognition.
In 1998 Barrale had a realization. He and his wife Rose had been organizing reunions for Ralph's 3rd Army outfit for almost 10 years and Ralph had been the commander of the Lake Saint Louis VFW post for a year.
"There was nothing in St. Charles at that time to recognize the veterans," Barrale said. "And that was the beginning."
The Campaign on the Homefront
Barrale led a group of veterans who began to work for that recognition. It began by having the bridge that carries the Page Avenue Extension over the Missouri River named Veterans Memorial Bridge. Then came a much more complicated task: to convince all of the cities along the Interstate 70 corridor in St. Charles County to rename the highway's south service road.
St. Peters was the first city to approve the change to Veterans Memorial Parkway. Eventually the name change went into effect from St. Charles at the east end of the county, through St. Peters and O'Fallon and then west to Lake Saint Louis. If Wentzville had adopted the name change, Veterans Memorial Parkway would span the entire county.
But that accomplishment wasn't enough. One night Barrale was awakened by a dream about a star, and his dream led to the creation of Lake Saint Louis' Veterans Memorial Park.
"That’s how it started," Barrale said. "As a five-pointed star (to recognize the branches of the military), but now it’s a six-pointed star. I got a call from the Merchant Marines, and they wanted to be part of it, so now their flag is there too. They’ve never been recognized as veterans."
The memorial park, adjacent to the Lake Saint Louis Civic Center, flies the flags of the United States, the branches of the military, the POW/MIA flag, and also features plaques and memorial bricks. The park serves as the location of Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies, and last year hosted the city's 9-11 Memorial Service.
But Barrale isn't resting on his laurels. He had originally hoped to include a military museum on the Veterans Memorial Park property, but the ground at the back of the park was deemed unsuitable for building. He has his eye on a piece of ground that lies across Civic Center Drive from Memorial Park for his next project.
"I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have a museum here? We could have displays and memorabilia. There's nothing in St. Charles County like that. People have stuff in their attics and basements—gas masks, dog tags, uniforms. People could bring it here and donate it, or lend it."
"With the memorial park right across the street, the two could work together," Barrale said, envisioning school field trips taking advantage of the park and the museum.
"I’m still pushing, but if we don’t get the ground, we can't do anything. Once we get the ground, I can approach all these other cities, and see if they would donate towards getting a building there," Barrale said. Thus far his efforts have been fruitless.
"The main thing is the ground, you’ve got to get the ground," he said.
Appreciation for "the greatest generation"
Barrale's eyes got a far-away look. "When we went to Europe back in 80s and toured the Battle of the Bulge, every city, every little town had a tank or an artillery piece or statue, thanking the veterans."
"The little kids, they see these guys, and realize they were soldiers during the war. They’d run up and thank them for their liberty," Rose Barrale said.
Barrale also spoke of "honor flights" to send veterans to Washington, D.C.
"We went up there, about three years ago now. People donate money to this organization so the WWII veterans can go see the memorials," he said. "You get a police escort through town, see the WWII memorial, the Lincoln memorial, the Korean Memorial, the Iwo Jima memorial. It was a great trip."
"When we went into the DC airport, over the loudspeaker, it said," Barrale paused. "I’m getting chills just thinking about it again."
"The loudspeaker said 'We have some World War II veterans coming through here, let’s give them a big welcome!' and we went walking through and everyone was clapping. And it was the same when we got back home."
"Every once in a while, someone will see the VFW emblem on my license plate and I’ll get a little note on my windshield, thanking me for my service," he said.
Time marches on. Barrale's Army unit reunions came to an end in 2002, when only three of the 150 men in the unit were able to attend. He and Rose still hear occasionally from the men's families.
But Ralph Barrale has made sure that the memory of their service lives on, in brick and mortar and flags flying.