San Antonio recipients of the Medal of Honor. Courtesy image.

Veterans who worried that the transformation of the historic Municipal Auditorium into the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts would somehow diminish the importance of the city’s Veterans Memorial Plaza Historic District should come to the Thursday, 10 a.m. unveiling of the Medal of Honor River Portal. If anything, the long-missing sense of hallowed ground may now be found.

The memorial honors 32 Medal of Honor recipients with ties to San Antonio, and on that list of names dating back to the American Civil War, there are many stories to tell. Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur Jr., the 19-year-old Union “boy colonel”, earned his Medal of Honor by bravely planting the Stars and Stripes on the high ground at the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga, Tenn. in 1863. He later served in the Southwest in the Army as a ranking officer in the cross-border campaign to capture the Native American warrior leader Geronimo.

His military accomplishments would be overshadowed by his son, five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who attended military school in San Antonio and went on to become the Army’s top commander in the Pacific Theater during World War II, when he was awarded the a Medal of Honor for his service in the Philippines Campaign. MacArthur had previously been nominated for the Medal of Honor during the 1914 occupation of Veracruz, and again in World War I for his bravery on the Western Front. The MacArthurs were the first father-son team to be awarded individual Medals of Honor.

And then there was President Theodore Roosevelt, the head of the Rough Riders recruited and trained in San Antonio, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the Spanish-American War. Such stories can wait; Thursday’s gathering  is about dedicating a space to heroes, honoring their service, and keeping their stories alive.

The Medal of Honor River Portal was built with $8 million in Bexar County community funds, and is expected to become an attraction in itself. The Tobin Center is still under construction and won’t open until September, but the River Portal will remain open after tomorrow’s ceremony so locals and visitors can visit the memorial.

“This is a very significant memorial,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who will preside at Thursday morning’s ceremony, along with other elected officials, veterans, and Medal of Honor recipients and their families. ” One, it’s connected to the San Antonio River, the reason our city exists, and two, you walk up through the river portal and see the Medal of Honor monument, and then you see the plaza  that was dedicated to World War I veterans when the Municipal Auditorium was built, and that leads you to the World War II and Korean War memorials.”

He described the experience as “all very moving”.

“We are honoring the men and women who served our country with such valor. San Antonio is Military City USA and this is what we do,” He said.

Former Mayor Phil Hardberger, who is scheduled to be on hand Thursday,  is credited with the idea for the River Portal after veterans groups expressed concern that creation of the performing arts center would somehow take away from the war memorials. Bexar County officials used federal stimulus funds designated for river and riverfront improvements to underwrite the project.

Officials pushed to have the River Portal ready for dedication by this year’s July 4th Independence Day celebrations. Wolff is expected to be joined by former Mayor Hardberger, all four county commissioners, Mayor Julián Castro, District One Councilman Diego Bernal, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, himself a highly decorated Vietnam War platoon commander.

All 32 veterans listed on the Medal of Honor memorial have some connection to San Antonio. Some were born here. Some lived here. Some were posted here on military duty. In all likelihood, more names will be added to the memorial as time goes on. To read more about the Medal of Honor and the 3,400 veterans who have been awarded the nation’s highest military honor for valor in combat since its inception in 1861, click here.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.