The Military Tribute Park, an unexpected sanctuary in the city at 39th Street and Park Avenue, is best appreciated on a breezy day. “When you see all the flags flying in the wind, you feel so proud,” says Navy veteran Will Willert, who served as a gunner’s mate in Vietnam. “You can sit on a bench, listen to the fountain, and take a little time to remember the men and women who made sacrifices for our country—especially the ones who didn’t come back.” The park features flags from every branch of the armed services, plus plaques listing the total number of troops killed in each branch of the military since the Revolutionary War.
Willert built the commemorative plaza on the grounds of his family business, Willert Home Products, which manufactures and distributes a wide range of household cleaners, fragrances and deodorizers. The company was started in 1946 by Willert’s father, August, when he returned from the Navy after WWII. Willert began working there full time when he came home from Vietnam. Today, he is president of the company, with more than 400 employees and factories in St. Louis, China, the Philippines and West Virginia. “Our customer base includes mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart, grocery and drugstore chains, and other retailers throughout the world,” he says. “I’m proud to report that about 70 percent of our products, which include air fresheners and moth preventives, are made right here in St. Louis.”
But despite the endless demands of growing an ever-expanding business, thoughts of his days in the military were never far from Willert’s mind. “I lost three friends in Vietnam, and I always wanted to create some kind of memorial for them and all the others who gave their lives,” he says. Following the events of 9/11, be began planning the Military Tribute Park, which was completed in 2002. “I update the plaques every year with the latest statistics from Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Willert, who joined the board of USO of Missouri 15 years ago: “They do so much to help our troops and their families,” he says. “I have fond memories of visiting the USO in San Diego before I shipped out to Vietnam.”
The USO of Missouri hosts up to 15,000 members of the Armed Forces and their families each month at The James S. McDonnell USO facility at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. “Mr. Willert, one of several vets on our board, has always been highly supportive of our work,” says its executive director Kathy O’Connor. “We’re open 24/7, and there’s no charge for our services.” Upcoming holiday events for military families include Santa’s Express, Dec. 4 at Union Station, which offers live entertainment and free toys for kids under 13; and Soldiers Left Behind, which provides gifts and food for soldiers at Ft. Leonard Wood.
Willert intends to keep the flags flying at the Military Tribute Park. “I don’t agree with everything my government does, but I’m proud of my country and those who have served,” he says. “When people drive down the street and see the flags, I hope it makes them think. And I hope they’ll support USO of Missouri. The troops deserve the best we can give them. They lay down their lives to keep us free.”
On the Cover: The Military Tribute Park, at 1449 S. 39th St., features flags from every branch of the armed services, plus plaques listing the total number of troops killed in every branch of the military since the American Revolutionary War. It is on the grounds of St. Louis-based Willert Home Products, a family-owned business that manufactures and distributes household products nationwide. For more information, call 659-1448, or visit willert.com or usostl.org. Cover design by Dawn Stremlau