The Mall in Washington D.C. is home to numerous war monuments. The newest one is surprisingly the World War II memorial. Long-delayed in being built, in size, scope and placement in the heart of the Mall, it stands as a place of honor for the 16 million who served in the US Armed forces, of which 416,800 died in just over four years. It is a place of inspiration and reminds us all to speak with this passing generation of veterans to hear their stories and experiences before they disappear into history.
78 Years ago…
In 1945 the world celebrated the end of the most devastating war in history, World War II. Nearly 60 million people perished, including 15 million battle deaths.
My father was a WWII 2 veteran; my mother a ‘Rosie the Riveter’, helping to build airplanes to support the war effort. Both vividly described VE (Victory in Europe) and VJ (Victory in Japan) celebrations. My mother spoke of bells ringing wildly, people dropping what they were doing and pouring into the streets to dance, cry, and shout with joy.
Yet it was not until nearly 40 years later that efforts began to recognize the US veterans with a monument on the Washington Mall in DC.
A Question Starts the Process
In 1987, WWII veteran Roger Durbin of Berkey, Ohio, who had served under Gen. George S. Patton, asked his US Rep. Marcy Kaptur why no memorial existed on the Mall to honor WWII veterans. The Vietnam War Memorial had been built in 1982. Kaptur introduced legislation to build one but it would drag through 17 years of legal, legislative and artistic challenges.
In 1993, President Clinton signed a law that authorized the first national memorial dedicated to all the men and women who served during WW II, and acknowledged the commitment and achievement of the entire nation. But while the Federal Government would contribute $16 million towards its construction, it took an additional $164 million in private donations to get it built, due largely to the advocacy of WWII Veteran Senator Bob Dole and actor Tom Hanks. Construction began in September 2001.
By the time it opened and was officially dedicated by President George Bush in May 2004, many of the WWII veterans it was built to recognize had already passed, never getting a chance to see the memorial. Nor to read the announcement stone that proclaims that it honors “Americans who took up the struggle during the Second World War and made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us: A nation conceived in liberty and justice.”
A Place of Honor
Plan to spend time at this beautiful monument for there is much to see. Located at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, the WWII monument sits on just over seven acres of the Mall. Now managed by the National Parks Services, its elegant and open design fuses strength with symbolism, acknowledgement of sacrifice with pride of accomplishment.
The granite and bronze monument surrounds a large circular plaza which in turn surrounds a great pool punctuated by a spurting fountain, all centered between arches symbolizing hostilities in Europe and the Far East. The arches are flanked on either side by semicircles of tall pillars decorated by bronze wreaths, representing each state, territory and the District of Columbia.
Beyond the pool is the curved Freedom Wall of 4,000 glittering gold stars, one for every 100 Americans killed in the war. Scattered among the pillars and Wall are plaques inscribed with quotes from leaders and generals. Details abound, from metal eagle sculptures soaring inside the arches to bas-reliefs on the walkways. Trees cluster near the arches, offering shady benches for contemplation.
And yet it is not a sad place. On a warm day, the fountain’s shallow pool hosts people dipping their toes as they perch along the edge. Children romp and play. Elderly veterans, proudly wearing caps, insignia and uniforms, are scattered about – some walking, some with walkers or in wheelchairs. All with heads held high, perhaps “seeing” and “hearing” other things in the monument’s shadows that to us “younger folks” are only a part of history.
At the Freedom Wall, I gazed at those stars. Each of those men and women had families, friends, people waiting for them to come home and resume their lives. But they didn’t. Instead, these people of diverse backgrounds from every walk of life worked together and gave their lives to help make this world a safer place, helping to preserve so many of those things we take for granted today. They are the heroes who merit being called patriots.
This Dec. 7 is National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, so named in honor of Pearl Harbor and the start of the US entry into WWII. Please, take a moment to honor all our veterans. Those of WWII veterans, members of “the Greatest Generation”, and all those before and after. For truly, this memorial is a “monument to the spirit, sacrifice, and commitment of the American people.” Let us never forget…
The Memorial is open 24/7 and free to the public. Be respectful of the veterans and other visitors.
Rangers are on duty to answer questions from 9:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. daily and to provide interpretive programs throughout the day and upon request. NPS website: www.nps.gov/wwii/index.htm
Weather is a factor to check during your visit – in summer, thunderstorms are common, and it can be hot and humid. Spring and Fall are much less busy.
Wear good walking shoes and a hat – DC is a walking city.
The Mall is surrounded by many museums and activities; you can spend a whole trip just exploring everything there is to do.