By SABRA STAFFORD
Washington, D.C. is an exceptional travel destination for those wishing to explore America’s past with the multitude of monuments to the leaders and everyday people who forged and defined the nation over the decades. The memorials erected to honor those who have fought and died under the American flag are also an opportunity to step back into history and honor the sacrifices made for democracy.
The National Mall in D.C. is home to three memorials dedicated to the men and women who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. There is no national memorial to World War I soldiers in D.C., though there is one in the works.
World War II Veterans Memorial
Of the three war memorials on the Mall, the monument to those who served during World War II is the newest addition. Opened in 2004 and situated between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, this memorial was built on a grand scale to symbolize the global impact of the war and was dedicated to the 16 million who served in the armed forces and the millions more who supported the effort on the home front. Two goliath arches bookend the elliptical plaza with 56 granite columns standing 17 feet tall representing the states and U.S. territories. A vast water fountain and pool is at the center and to one side is a Freedom Wall that is adorned with 4,048 golden stars that commemorates the more than 400,000 United States military personnel that died during the war. Around the arches and on various spots on the memorial are the locations of key battles and quotes from central figures among the Allied Forces. And no WWII monument would be complete without the presence of Kilroy – the well-known doodle and tagline “Kilroy was here” that was popular in the 1940s. He’s at the monument, but in a tucked away spot on the back side of the monument.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
From the World War II Memorial, it’s less than a half a mile walk along the National Mall to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Opened in 1995, the Korean War Veterans Memorial was built to salute the 5.8 million armed forces that served from 1950 to 1953 in Korea and the more than 36,000 that perished. There are four features to the monument – a mural wall, the Pool of Remembrance, the United Nations Wall and the platoon on patrol. The mural wall was created with more than 2,400 photographs taken during the war that were then etched into the black granite. When viewed from afar, the wall creates an image of a mountain range in Korea.
The most prominent feature of the memorial are the 19 soldier statues that stand 7 feet tall and represent the various branches of service. Adorned in ponchos that appear to be blowing in the breeze amid the juniper bushes, the patrol can be seen in the reflection of the mural wall, which creates the impression that there are 38 soldiers. The number is significant because it represents the 38th Parallel and the 38 months the war lasted.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
A trail that starts at the Korean War Veterans Memorial and goes past the steps of the Lincoln Memorial winds down at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The monument of two long granite walls contains the names of more than 58,000 U.S. service members who died or went missing during the war. The wall was designed by Maya Lin, who at the time was a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate studying architecture. Her design, though controversial at the time, has become one of America’s most revered memorials and while simple in design, it features many symbolic elements. The wall is actually two identical 246-foot-9-inch pieces, with the widest section in the middle and tapering down as it stretches out. The memorial is built like a retaining wall because Lin wanted it to look like a knife had cut through the earth. The two center panels begin with the first death and end with the last death. The names are listed in chronological order based on the date of casualty, and within each day, names are shown in alphabetical order. The black granite was selected so that visitors to the wall would see their reflection along with the names, thereby connecting the past and the present.
While the Wall is the most well-known part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, there are two other aspects to it. Just south of the Wall is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, built in honor of the more than 265,000 women who served during the Vietnam War, many as nurses. The bronze statue stands 15 feet high and weighs 9,000 pounds. It features three women helping a wounded soldier. The third part of the memorial is called “The Three Soldiers” and was designed by Frederick Hart. The bronze statue sits on a granite base and stands seven feet tall with the gaze of the three men trailing to the Wall and the names of their fallen comrades.
Washington DC and the surrounding area also is where visitors can find memorials and monuments dedicated to the different branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Marine Corps War Memorial
The most famous of all the military monuments in Washington, D.C. is the Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, which is dedicated to all the Marines who have died in service to the country since 1775. The memorial was inspired by the 1945 photograph by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal. His photograph captured the moment when six Marines raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II. Of the six men photographed, three survived the battle and three perished. Sculptor Felix W. de Weldon was so moved by the photograph that he made a scale model of it, then a life-size model. The final version stands 78 feet tall, with the six marines at 32 feet each and the flagpole reaching 60 feet. A presidential proclamation decreed the American flag be flown at the memorial constantly. There is a persistent myth with the memorial that it features 13 hands raising the flag, with the extra hand belonging to God. The sculptor has denied that he incorporated an extra hand into the design, but the myth lives on as visitors swear to having counted 13 hands. The memorial is located in Arlington County, just across the Potomac River from Washington DC.
Air Force Memorial
Also located in Arlington is the Air Force Memorial, which opened in 2006 and is situated on a promontory overlooking the Pentagon and the Potomac. The memorial features three stainless steel spires that stand 201 feet to 270 feet tall and draw the eye upward to the sky. The design of the spires replicates the look of the contrails from the Air Force Thunderbirds bomb burst maneuver. The design used only three spires instead of four to symbolize the missing man formation used for Air Force funeral flyovers. At the center of the spires on the ground is a star that if a person stands on and looks up, the tops of the three spires can be seen and captured in a photograph. Included in the memorial are the bronze sculptures of an Air Force Honor Guard and a free-standing glass contemplation wall with an etching of four F-16s in flight formation.
U.S. Navy Memorial
Back across the Potomac on Pennsylvania Avenue is the U.S. Navy memorial. Situated in a bustling plaza, the memorial has several elements all associated with a life at sea. The ground of the memorial is a map of the world that uses different colored cement to create an illusion of land and sea and is bordered by flagpole masts and fountains that contain water from all seven seas. The memorial also has a bronze sculpture known as The Lone Sailor, which is dedicated to all personnel who have served on the sea.
Arlington National Cemetery
There is no U.S. Army memorial in Washington DC, but there is a destination where visitors can pay their respects to all who have served and that is at the Arlington National Cemetery. The more than 600 acres is the final resting place of those who have served in the nation’s conflicts. The grounds were the family home of Mary Lee, the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and were first designated as a military cemetery during the Civil War. The first military burial was in 1864, but the grounds hold the remains of soldiers from every conflict in America’s history. In 1892, soldiers killed during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 were reinterred on the grounds.
The cemetery is home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, which contains the remains of unidentified soldiers from World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. The tomb did hold the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier, but advances in DNA led to the identification as Air Force 1st Lt. Michael J. Blassie and he was reinterred near his family in St. Louis. The tomb has been perpetually guarded by the U.S. Army since 1937. There is a very precise routine the guards undertake as they stand vigil. The guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the tomb, then turns and faces east for 21 seconds. The guard then turns and faces north for 21 seconds, and then takes 21 steps down the mat. The routine is repeated until the soldier is relieved of duty at the changing of the guard.
Women in Military Service for America Memorial
At the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery is the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. The memorial’s opening ceremony in 1997 included a candlelight march and a flyover by an all-female flight team, which was a first for the country.