Maybe whoever stole the plaque honoring Manuel Perez Jr. from the Oklahoma City park that bears his name didn't know his story. But local community activists want to make sure future generations are well aware of the exploits of a member of “The Greatest Generation” who earned the highest military honor a U.S. soldier can achieve.
Several local community groups are combining to host an event Saturday at Manuel Perez Park in Oklahoma City to begin a fundraising campaign to buy a new plaque for the park's monument, and ideally more renovations to the park down the line.
“We're doing this for veterans. If it weren't for these people, we wouldn't have our freedom,” said Cruz Cardenas, 71, of Oklahoma City, Perez's cousin and last remaining local relative. “Now, more than ever, it's time we try to preserve some of this history.”
Perez was born in Oklahoma City to parents who immigrated from Mexico when his father sought work on an oil pipeline. The family eventually moved to Chicago, where Perez enlisted in the Army during World War II.
Perez, a private first class, earned the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Philippines on Feb. 13, 1945, when engaged with Japanese troops in fortified pillboxes. Perez single-handedly killed 18 enemy soldiers, including the final four in hand-to-hand combat, to enable his unit to advance.
Perez was 22 when he was killed in action later in the war, and his family eventually accepted the Medal of Honor on his behalf. He is buried next to his parents in Oklahoma City's Fairlawn Cemetery.
The city honored Perez by naming the park after him, but the plaque detailing his life and accomplishments has been stolen, and the park, situated in a blighted area of the city, could use some sprucing up.
That's where the Amigos de Perez Park enter, a community group dedicated to securing funds to buy a new plaque and eventually make other improvements to the park. It has its roots in the Capitol Hill Civic Networking Group, which meets once a week to discuss community issues in the historic neighborhood and surrounding area.
“We need to raise awareness in the community now about this person that had done this heroic act for America,” said David Puente, 59, a lifelong Oklahoma City resident who grew up reading about Perez in Memorial Day stories in The Oklahoman. “He (Perez) is an American hero, a soldier who just so happened to live in our community. That's what it's about, to rekindle the memory of this war veteran.”
The park also caught the attention of Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan when participants in his SHINE project, which finds ways for low-risk offenders on community service to help their communities, recently did cleanup work at the park.
Oklahoma City Councilman Pete White also has been involved in bringing groups together to keep the project's momentum going, and will be among the featured speakers at Saturday's event. He said it's important to keep Perez's legacy alive for all Oklahoma City residents, but particularly within the growing Hispanic community.
“This guy is certainly a homegrown, Oklahoma City Hispanic kid who was a hero,” White said.
The park, at SW 14 and Harvey Avenue along the border of the south end of the MAPS 3 urban park, has an uncertain future. It may be incorporated within the design of the larger park, or it could remain apart.
Oklahoma City Parks and Recreation Department Director Wendel Whisenhunt said no decisions have been made, but city officials continue to discuss options, and they will include anything made possible by private fundraising.
City parks officials will design any possible refurbishing plans for the park, including a new monument, for use with any funds raised by private groups. OKC Beautiful and the South Oklahoma City Rotary Club are joining forces with the city and Amigos de Perez Park to organize the fundraising.