Although I had originally planned to include the World War II Memorial in a list of my favorite Washington D.C. memorials/monuments, I came to the conclusion that the World War II Memorial is so monolithic and encompassing that it deserved its own post.
Just like most Americans, many of my relatives were World War II veterans. My paternal grandfather was a turret gunner in North Africa and Italy and my maternal grandfather was an infantryman in Italy. Numerous great-uncles served, including one in the South Pacific as well as one who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. When I first heard about plans to construct a memorial to honor all of the World War II veterans, I immediately sent a donation. While it was not a large amount by any means due to my menial income as a teenager, I was still happy to help. As a donor, I received periodic updates on the memorial’s construction and also was able to record my relatives’ names in the memorial’s registry. The memorial opened to the general public in 2004 but it wasn’t until 2009 that I finally got to visit in person. It’s massive and mirrors the enormity and scope of the largest war ever fought in modern times. Fifty-six granite pillars, each at a height of 17 feet, are arranged in a semicircle around a plaza; each pillar is inscribed with the name of one of the 48 United States in 1945 as well as the District of Columbia, the Alaska Territory, the Territory of Hawaii, the Commonwealth of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the United States Virgin Islands. Also featured are two triumphal arches, one to mark each of the war’s theaters-the Atlantic and the Pacific. There is also the Freedom Wall which features 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war.
The most moving part of the memorial was seeing the veterans there. These were elderly men and women, some walking with difficulty, others requiring the use of a wheel chair, and yet they had lived to see this incredible memorial that honored their valiant efforts and struggles. It was touching to see strangers go up to the elderly veterans and simply say “thank you” and shaking their hands. When I read that critics of the memorial were bothered by the expedited approval it received since it is normally a long and drawn out process, I was taken aback. The United States Congress did so over worries that too many World War II veterans would die before the memorial would ever be built, so passed legislation which exempted the memorial from further site and design review. Congress also dismissed pending legal challenges to the memorial. I found the carping disturbing since clearly these naysayers have no idea of the rapid rate at which World War II veterans are dying. The United States Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 740 American World War II veterans die each day with around 270,000 having died in 2011. This from a number in which 16 million United States men and women served. I was just sad that none of my relatives lived to see the memorial themselves. My paternal grandfather passed away in 2003 and while both my maternal grandfather and his brother are still living, neither is in the best of health and what they saw of the memorial will always be in pictures.
Critics also decried the location of the memorial. To me the spot in which it was built could not be more perfect between the memorial of two past presidents, whose legacies were greatly tied to that of the American soldier. Personally, I see neither Lincoln nor Washington feeling that the memorial took away the spotlight from then but rather the spotlight in the country’s national capital should honor all, not just famous individuals.
Whether or not you had a relative who fought in World War II, you should still go visit. Whether or not you know beforehand what the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters mean, you should still go visit. While the United States is often regarded by the global community as being over the top and excessive, this is one instance in which over the top and excessive is most fitting. It’s a haunting memorial, yet one that every American should make the effort to see. The struggles and efforts of the World War II generation are something that later generations (mine included) will never truly know the enormity of, and yet a visit there will help to shed some light. Not to mention if you see a veteran there when you visit, be sure to say thank you to them. They did a service that those in the modern world should be eternally grateful for.