So much for honoring Dwight D. Eisenhower.
For nearly 70 years, the bridge spanning the Mississippi River between Red Wing and Hager City, Wis., carried the name of the 34th president of the United States and former supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.
But when a new bridge opens to traffic this fall, it’s likely to get a new name honoring anonymous heroes everywhere.
Chalk up the name change to the Tet offensive, the unrelenting assaults in 1968 by the North Vietnamese that shook the confidence of the American people in the conduct of the Vietnam War.
Jane Drazkowski told a roomful of Minnesota representatives Thursday in St. Paul that news reports last year about the 50th anniversary of the offensive and related reflections on the Vietnam War prompted her to think about the five young men from Red Wing who were killed in the war.
“Regardless of how you feel about the Vietnam War, we owe these young men and their families a debt of gratitude,” said Drazkowski, the mother of a U.S. Marine and a resident of Red Wing.
Drazkowski said she started meeting with a small group of people who “took up the sword” to name the new bridge in honor of Vietnam veterans. They vetted the idea with veterans, civic groups and America Indians in Minnesota and Wisconsin, she said. And at some point, the veterans themselves suggested a broader tribute to the fallen in all wars.
“We had zero resistance, and the name Bridge of Valor was overwhelmingly applauded,” Drazkowski told members of the House Transportation Finance and Policy Division.
Ernie Stone, a member of the Red Wing Charter Commission, said he found the name inspirational.
“It’s going to be unique to everybody — to each person,” he said.
Merle Larson, a Cannon Falls resident who spent eight years in the military between the Korean and Vietnam wars, said the name reflects the fact that “valor means much more than courage under fire.” It should also apply to support staff like nurses and clerks to labor to support a war effort.
State statute an issue
Red Wing Mayor Sean Dowse said the City Council questioned last year whether the new $63.4 million bridge to Hager City should get a different name, but dropped the idea after learning that a state statute specified that any bridge built across the Mississippi at that location must be named after Eisenhower.
The City Council noted at the time that citizens who wanted to pick up the idea were free to contact their state legislators. Dowse said he only learned last week that they had taken up the matter with the Legislature.
Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, said she agreed to sponsor legislation to name the new span Bridge of Valor after Drazkowski and others reached out to her explaining that they wanted to honor veterans, their families, police officers and firefighters.
“Their purpose is to honor all veterans, past, present and future,” Haley said.
Her bill, House File 548, was referred to the House Ways and Means Division.
Sen. Michael P. Goggin, R-Red Wing, has sponsored a matching bill (Senate File 646) awaiting a hearing before the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.
The Eisenhower bridge is a fracture-critical span, meaning the entire structure could collapse if a key component were to fail. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is replacing it with a new bridge, which is scheduled to open to traffic in the fall. The entire project, including roadway realignments and removal of the old bridge, should be completed by August 2020.
Google “Bridge of Valor” now and you’ll find links to medieval game models by Dwarven Forge depicting a bridge in a stone castle, or a fantasy novel by Anne Leslie Groell about a pair of characters who become comrades in something called the Assassins’ Guild.
Even so, it’s hard to imagine that the late five-star general would object to honoring the men and women who sacrificed for the sake of the country. But not everyone likes the new name.
“It just sounds way too generic,” Minnesota history buff John Weeks III said Thursday. “Someone driving across the bridge isn’t going to know what it means.”
Weeks wrote about the spans across the river between Red Wing and Wisconsin on his web page. The Eisenhower Memorial Bridge initially was called the Interstate Bridge, but was renamed the Hiawatha Bridge before it opened in 1960. It was renamed again after then-President Eisenhower visited Red Wing to dedicate the bridge, drawing more than 20,000 people, Weeks said.
“Eisenhower stressed that the government in Washington was listening to the people and taking care of their needs even though they were over 1,000 miles from the federal capital,” he wrote. “In reality, 1960 was an election year, and Vice President Nixon was in a tough battle with Senator [John F.] Kennedy. Eisenhower came to Minnesota in support of Nixon’s election bid, an election that Kennedy eventually won. The people of Red Wing later renamed the bridge in Eisenhower’s honor.”