It was 75 years ago that 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. Of the 16 million who served in the US Armed forces, 416,800 died in the space of just over four years.
My father is a World War 2 veteran; my mother was a ‘Rosie the Riveter’, one of those building 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, WW2 veteran Roger Durbin of Berkey, Ohio, who had served under Gen George S. Patton, asked his US Representative Marcy Kaptur why no memorial existed on the Mall to honor WW2 veterans. Kaptur introduced legislation to build one shortly thereafter; it would drag through 17 years of legal, legislative and artistic challenges.
At last, in 1993, President Clinton signed the law that authorized the first national memorial dedicated to all the men and women who served during World War II, and acknowledging the commitment and achievement of the entire nation. 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 WW2 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 WW2 veterans it was built to recognize had already passed away, never getting a chance to see the memorial. Nor 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
Located at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, the WW2 monument sits on just over 7 acres of the Mall. Now managed by the National Parks Services, its open design fuses strength with symbolism, acknowledgement of sacrifice with pride of accomplishment. (WWIIMemorial.com/home.aspx)
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 (the Atlantic side) 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. 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.
So please, take a moment to honor all our veterans. These WW2 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.”