The World War II Memorial Marks a Nation’s Victory and a Generation’s Sacrifice

“Time is short!” is a maxim often repeated by military planners. It was similarly intoned by the planners and organizers of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall.

2019 marked the 15th anniversary of Memorial’s dedication. While there had long been consensus on the need for a national memorial in Washington, DC to commemorate America’s victory in World War II, the initial progress was slow. Yet the WW II veterans were aging. As most WWII veterans were entering their late 60’s or 70s, there was a growing concern within the broader veteran community about the need to build a memorial before that generation passed away. 

Congressional legislation authorizing the project stalled several times, finally passing in 1993. Once signed into law, an advisory board was formed, a sight selected, funds raised, designs submitted and construction begun.

The image of Nike, from the World War II Victory Medal, under the Atlantic and Pacific pavilions at the World War II Memorial

Finally, on May 29, 2004, as part of the largest reunion of US World War II veterans, President George W. Bush dedicated the World War II Memorial. In his speech that day, President Bush remarked that winning the war “would require the commitment and effort of our entire nation. To fight and win on two fronts, Americans had to work and save and ration and sacrifice as never before”. 

The memorial, over ten years in the making, honors that two front victory, that commitment, that sacrifice and the unity of the American people who achieved it. That honor is reflected in part by the memorial’s location, on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, with the Lincoln Memorial appearing in the distance. The location signifies how the struggle to win World War II is comparable with the contributions of Lincoln and Washington in American history. 

The Lincoln Memorial with the World War II Memorial in the foreground.

Approaching from its 17th Street entrance, the memorial greets you, a broad expanse of granite, water and metal. It can be confusing at first. Its neoclassical design incorporates a jumble of names, figures, and symbols.  But slowly, the imagery becomes cohesive and themes emerge — victory of course, but also unity and reverence. 

The visitor’s eyes are first drawn to the oval shaped Rainbow Pool with its twin fountains. This feature was originally designed in 1923 by Frederick Law Olmstead and was part of the National Mall for many decades. It was later incorporated into the World War II Memorial’s design.  Arranged in a semi-circle around the pool are 56 granite columns, one for each US state and territorial possession during World War II.  Alternating victory laurels of wheat and oak leaves (signifying agricultural plenty and industrial capacity respectively) adorn each column while a bronze rope, indicating unity, ties the columns together. 

The Rainbow Pool with the Atlantic Pavilion and several state columns.

On each end of the pool are two 43-foot-tall pavilions, representing the victories in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Major campaigns and battles of each theater are inscribed at the base of the pavilions. Four stately bronze eagles, one for each branch of the US Armed Forces are perched inside. They hold aloft a large victory wreath representing how the combined efforts of the armed forces secured victory on the land, on the sea and in the air. On the pavilion’s floor is a bronze disk with an image of the Greek goddess Nike, the same image depicted on the World War II victory medal issued to US service members after the war. 

An Atlantic Theater bass relief scene depicting US paratroopers preparing to jump.

Aligned along the entry walkway are two series of bronze bass relief plaques rendering period images from the World War II era.  Scenes from the war in Europe are found on the north side, aligned to the Atlantic Pavilion. Scenes from the Pacific are found on the south side, aligned to the Pacific Pavilion. Depictions from both the battlefront and home front are included, showing the unity of the American people in the war effort. The last two plaques denote victory — U.S. and Russian soldiers linking up in Europe and civilians celebrating the end of the war in the Pacific.

While the memorial is meant to honor the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, there is a special section to honor the approximately 400,000 American servicemen and woman who died during the war. The Remembrance Wall on the western edge of the memorial is composed of over 4,048 gold stars on a blue background, each gold star representing 100 fallen service members. On either side of the Remembrance Wall are two small waterfalls which, along with the Rainbow Pool’s fountains, muffle the sounds of the many boisterous pedestrians, vehicles and overhead aircraft transiting the area. The cascading waters allow for quiet contemplation before this visual reminder of the price of war.

Over 4,000 Gold Stars adorn the Remembrance Wall. The tradition of displaying the Gold Star to mark the death of a US service member goes back to World War I.

Naturally, the process to build the memorial was not without some contention. While there was a sense of urgency among some, there were also objections raised to the memorial’s prominent location on the National Mall, its design, and the accelerated approval and construction timeline. (Congress exempted the World War II Memorial from certain legal requirements other groups needed to follow out of concern for the aging World War II veterans.) Despite these controversies, today the World War II Memorial is one of Washington’s most visited sites. The National Park Service estimates the memorial drew about 4.8 million people in 2018. 

A bouquet left at the memorial in memory of a World War II veteran.

The memorial has even spawned a nationwide organization known as the Honor Flight Network, dedicated to transporting veterans from around the country to Washington DC to see those memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifice. Since 2005, the Honor Flight Network has transported over 220,000 veterans, along with 163,000 escorts, to Washington. The memorial draws many other organized visits by veterans groups and survivors organizations leading to emotional reunions and the presentations of long overdue awards such as this one recently recounted in the Washington Post. Events such as this, as well as the many wreathes, flowers, notes, pictures, and other mementoes left at the Memorial are testament to its effect as being a meaningful tribute to the legacy of our WWII generation.

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Computer Registry 

Adjoining the Memorial is a small National Park Service building with computer kiosks where the visitors can access the Registry of Remembrances, an unofficial compilation of names, units and events entered by members of the public to honor US service members who helped to win the Second World War. More information on the registry and how to enter information about someone you know can be found here. 

Route Recon

The World War II Memorial is located at 1750 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., near the intersection of 17th Street and Independence Avenue. Very limited parking is available on West Basin Drive, on Ohio Drive SW, and at the Tidal Basin parking lot along Maine Ave., SW.  

A better option to access the National Mall is the Washington Metro System. The nearest station for the World War II Memorial as well as the Washington Monument is Smithsonian Station. Use the Mall Exit when leaving the station.

Two images of Kilroy are hidden within the World War II Memorial. The Kilroy image was widely drawn by American servicemen in both theaters. See if you can find Kilroy when you visit.

FDR: A Man and His Memorial

SignJust west of the Tidal Basin lies the memorial to the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Unlike most memorials in Washington, DC that consist largely of a single structure or statue, the FDR memorial is a mix of engravings, vegetation, statues, sculptures, walls and water features. It’s big, spread out over an area encompassing more than five football fields.

Noted landscape architect Lawrence Halpern designed the memorial so visitors could experience it in their own distinct way, which explains its unique, open, and rambling nature. Many Americans remember FDR as the only President elected to four terms and Mr. Halpern incorporated this unique accomplishment into his design. The memorial is laid out in four distinct sections or “rooms” with each room corresponding to one of FDR’s terms of office.

But to better understand the man and his memorial, it is important to look beyond these four rooms and FDR’s time in the White House. He was born into a wealthy New York family. Schooled at Harvard and Columbia Law School, he ultimately chose a career in politics rather than the law.

He modeled that career after his fifth cousin Theodore’s, although the members of his branch of the Roosevelt family were Democrats, while Teddy’s were Republicans. FDR was first elected to the New York State Senate in 1910 from a Republican leaning district. He was a reformist, pro-labor state senator who worked to limit the impact of the political machines which dominated much of the state’s politics.

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As an early supporter of Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election, FDR was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913. At the time, this was the number two position in the Navy Department, answering directly to the Secretary. He was eager to take the job. FDR greatly admired the Navy; he once claimed to own 10,000 books about the Navy and had read all of them but one. His cousin Teddy had also been Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he saw the job as an important political stepping stone.

His seven years as Assistant Secretary provided FDR with valuable experience that served him well as President. As Assistant Secretary, he negotiated contracts, supervised civilian personnel and tried to orchestrate the work of the Navy’s various bureaus. He learned the importance of keeping good relations with Congress, how to work with big corporations and maintain the support of labor unions.

Room 3
Scattered blocks symbolic of the chaos of war.

He also became acquainted with numerous Naval and Marine officers, many of whom he would call upon some twenty years later to serve in key commands and staff assignments. He founded the Naval Reserve and as World War I approached, he learned to apply various bureaucratic mechanisms to effectively harness industrial production and prepare the Navy for wartime. He was so highly regarded in his overall tenure at the Navy Department, he was selected as the Democratic Party’s Vice Presidential nominee in 1920. Although the Democrats lost that year, FDR’s advocacy for the common man in his policymaking and his remarkable communication skills would propel him to two terms as New York’s governor and, ultimately, to the White House.

Fireside Chat
Statue of a man listening to one of FDR’s Fireside Chats. FDR delivered 30 such radio addresses during his Administration, explaining his policies and programs to the American public in a simple, yet confident conversational style.

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Water is an important feature in this memorial. Over 100,000 gallons of water are recycled through the water features each minute. The water pools, the water falls, the water streams along, silently in some places, loud in others.

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Visitors to the FDR Memorial experiencing a waterfall.

FDR loved the water. As a youth, FDR was an avid swimmer and sailor. After he was diagnosed with polio in 1921 at age 39, hydrotherapy became an important part of his rehabilitation. He purchased property in Warm Springs, Georgia where he returned regularly for treatments in the warm, mineral rich water.

FDR would devote tremendous time and energy to his therapy and was very supportive of others also afflicted by polio. He founded the Warm Springs Foundation, so many could experience the same therapeutic benefit of the waters. He would also found the National Institute for Infantile Paralysis, which we know today as the March of Dimes. While FDR would regain some limited use of his legs, he was always very careful not to be photographed or portrayed using the crutches or wheelchair he still relied upon.

FDR and Fala
The statue of FDR (as he might wish to be portrayed) and his dog, Fala, in the Third Room of the FDR Memorial. Note FDR’s cloak covering the wheelchair.

FDR’s portrayal at the memorial was the subject of some controversy when it opened in 1997. A large statue of a seated FDR, along with his canine companion, Fala, shows FDR’s large cloak covering his wheelchair. Some thought his disability should be in full view as an example and inspiration to others. Ultimately, a bronze statue of FDR in a wheelchair was added in 2001 at the memorial’s entrance.

Scattered throughout the memorial are 21 inscriptions of famous quotations from FDR’s speeches, fireside chats and writings. They clearly evoke the troubles and challenges of the times. But they also reflect FDR’s unique ability to reach each individual in his audience and assure the listener of FDR’s concern for them and their future. Some quotes are very familiar (“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”), others less so.

I HATE WAR
Excerpt from FDR’s I HATE WAR Speech.

The central/showpiece quote in the third room, denoting World War II, comes from FDR’s “I Hate War” speech. FDR actually delivered this speech in 1936, as he was increasingly concerned by events in the world. He understood the impact of a global war and hoped to sway other nations to join the United States in avoiding conflict. That effort was, of course, not successful and the haphazard waterfalls and scattered granite blocks in the room—several inscribed with “I HATE WAR”—are meant to evoke the chaos and destruction of that war.

FDR died on April 12, 1945 at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia, just 26 days before the unconditional surrender of Germany and the end of World War II in Europe. The last room of the memorial is dedicated to his legacy. There is a small relief of his funeral cortege and several quotes about the future he hoped to realize and the peace he hoped to build.

ER
Statue of First Lady Eleanore Roosevelt in the Fourth Room of the FDR Memorial. This is the only presidential memorial to also honor a first lady.

The FDR Memorial is one of the most unique in Washington and well worth a special visit. Like all the memorials in the vicinity of the National Mall, the FDR Memorial is open 24 hours a day. The late evening or early morning hours are actually good times to visit, when the grounds are quieter and the nighttime illumination or early light create special effects on the walls, water, statues and other features. Park Rangers are on site daily from 9:30 am until 10:00 pm. There is also a book store by the entrance with a variety of materials about FDR, his wife Eleanor, and the Great Depression, as well as souvenirs of Washington, DC.

Interestingly, FDR desired something much different as a memorial. He once remarked to his friend, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, that if a memorial should ever be dedicated to him, it should be about the size of his desk and placed on the grass lawn in front of the National Archives.  He wanted it kept very plain, with only the inscription “in Memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. He got his wish; the memorial was dedicated in 1965 and can be found at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 9th Street, NW, right next to the National Archives.

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Route Recon

The two closest Metro stops to the FDR Memorial on the Mall are Federal Triangle and Smithsonian, both on the Blue, Orange and Silver Lines. DC Circulator’s National Mall route or Metrobus routes 32, 34 or 36 are also options. Visitor parking is available on Ohio Drive, between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Handicapped parking spaces are set aside at locations on West Basin Drive in front of the memorial. It is always important to note that street parking is often limited in DC.

Experience the Great War Above the Trenches at the National Air and Space Museum

The list of ‘Must Sees” for most Washington, DC visitors includes the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). It is one of the city’s most visited attractions, welcoming over 6 million people each year. It is easy to understand why. It is near the Mall, admission is free and the extensive collection of all things that fly attracts people of all ages. There are literally thousands of items on display, as well as a planetarium, an IMAX movie theater and flight simulators.

Some of the best military-themed exhibits within easy walking distance of the Mall can be found at NASM. In 1991, NASM opened Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air examining the budding role of aviation during the First World War. The exhibit contrasts the romanticized view of the experiences of World War I pilots with the starker reality of combat aviation. The exhibit entices you to enter with a bright red movie theater façade, complete with flashing marquee and similarly colored Pfalz D.XII fighter aircraft suspended overhead.

pfalz
This Pfalz D.XIII Fighter is painted bright red for its Hollywood movie role.

Inside the theater, a short, looped film explains how Hollywood adapted stories of World War I pilots for American audiences. Nearby a child’s bedroom exhibit features books, games and toys from the post-war period celebrating the glory, bravery and derring-do of World War I flying aces.

Turn the corner and a somber reality sets in.

The lighting fades and the sounds of combat emerge. Ground combat and life in the trenches are portrayed. The focus shifts to a more detailed examination of the roles pilots and aircraft would play during the war as observers, fighters, bombers, and conducting photo reconnaissance missions. Three early battles in the war, Tannenburg, the Marne and the Somme are briefly examined where the warring parties learned both the great potential and many pitfalls of deploying aircraft into combat.

During the Battle of Tannenburg and the Battle of the Marne, respective German and French commanders successfully countered enemy troop movements detected by aerial observation. During the Somme however, the British learned the limits of using aerial observation. While pilots could detect troop movements, they would not assess the morale, or the level of training of the enemy units detected below. British commanders also experienced the difficulties of coordinating simultaneous air and ground operations.

albatross
Albatross D.Va Fighter – The German military built over 4,800 Albatross fighters of all types during World War I. Only two are known to exist today. This Albatross D.Va fighter on display and one other at the Australian War Museum in Canberra.

For the aviation enthusiast, the highlights of the exhibit are likely the Smithsonian’s restored vintage WWI aircraft. In addition to the Pfalz D.XII fighter, other German aircraft include an Albatross D.Va, and Fokker D.VII fighters. There is a Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe fighter from the United Kingdom and a French Voisin Type 8 bomber.

fokker-dvii
Fokker D.VII fighter – Two mannequins representing a pilot and ground crewman inspect the Fokker D.VII fighter. Developed to counter more advanced Allied fighter aircraft, the Fokker D.VII fighter was introduced to front line squadrons in April 1918. Some historians and aviation experts considered the Fokker D.VII to be one of the best fighter aircraft of World War I. The plane was so highly regarded the final Armistice required the Germans to surrender all Fokker D.VII fighters.

There is also a SPAD XIII fighter. This French made aircraft was known for its sturdiness and ability to perform during dog fights. Multiple air services flew the SPAD XIII’s because of its excellent reputation and performance. In addition to the French, it was flown by the British, Italians, Belgians and Russians.

spad-xiii
The SAPD XIII Fighter. The number “20” on the side is the aircraft’s identification number, assigned by the aero squadron.

As the U.S. entered World War I with no combat ready aircraft, the SPAD XIII was also used by U.S. fighter squadrons of the American Expeditionary Force. The SPAD XIII on display was assigned to the 22nd Aero Squadron of the U.S. Army Air Service.

It was piloted by Lieutenant A. Raymond Brooks who named the aircraft “Smith IV” after his sweetheart’s alma mater. Lt. Brooks won one of his six aerial victories in Smith IV; other squadron pilots achieved additional victories. After being sent to the United States for a Liberty Bond tour in 1918, Smith IV was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1919.

There are no American made aircraft in the World War I exhibit, but a de Havilland DH-4, manufactured by the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company can be found in the “Looking at Earth” exhibit, downstairs in Gallery 107.

dh4
De Havilland DH-4. This U.S. made bomber and observation aircraft would continue to serve the U.S. Government many years after the war.

As the U.S. was preparing to enter the war, the military began looking at various Allied aircraft designs that might be adapted and built in the U.S. The DH-4 was modeled after the British de Havilland bomber and the DH-4 would serve the U.S. Army Air Service in the same capacity. The first models began conducting combat missions in August of 1918.

The DH-4 on display was a prototype, flying many flights and experiments to test the aircraft’s design. Although it never saw combat, this DH-4 is fitted with the standard military compliment of combat equipment: six 25 lb Mark II bombs, two DeRam DR-4 cameras, two fixed, forward-firing .30-caliber Marlin machine guns, and the observer’s position is armed with two flexible .30-caliber Lewis machine guns.

dh4-mannequin
SMILE! A mannequin demonstrates one role of the de Havilland DH-4, as a photo reconnaissance aircraft.

Because the NASM is such a popular destination, it can become very crowded in the spring and summer. Planning ahead can save you some valuable time. Use the “Visit” section of the NASM website to see what is currently on display, learn about the day’s special programs, get helpful tips, and buy tickets in advance for any of the IMAX movies or the planetarium. It is important to remember visitors must pass through metal detectors to enter the NASM and certain items are prohibited.

If the NASM Mall location leaves you wanting to see more about aircraft and space exploration, the NASM has a second complex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located about 28 miles from downtown Washington near Dulles International Airport. Several Smithsonian Institution museums, including NASM, offer extended hours during the spring and summer. You can find more information at: http://www.si.edu/visit/hours#ExtendedHours

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ROUTE RECON

The NASM is located at the intersection of Independence Avenue and 6th Street, Southwest. There is no onsite parking, but there are several commercial lots nearby. The nearest Washington Metro stations are the L’Enfant Plaza Station on the Yellow and Green Lines and the Smithsonian Station on the Blue and Orange lines. Both stations are about a two block walk to the NASM.

MESS CALL

The Wright Place Food Court offers a variety of fast food meal options from Boston Market, Donatos Pizza and McDonald’s.

National Mall: District of Columbia War Memorial

District of Columbia War Memorial

The District of Columbia War Memorial recognizes the World War I service of citizens from the District of Columbia. It is located just north of Independence Avenue, roughly opposite of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.

In the cornerstone of the Memorial is a list of all 26,000 District veterans who served in World War I. On the base of the memorial are the names the 499 city residents who died during the war. Dedicated in 1931, it is an example of a “living memorial”, a structure which combines symbolic commemoration with a practical purpose. The DC War Memorial was constructed as a bandstand and carefully designed to accommodate the entire U.S. Marine Corps Band. (The Marine Band did play weekly summer concerts at the memorial until World War II).

This is the only memorial on the Mall dedicated exclusively to the District of Columbia and the first memorial to list the names of women and African Americans along with white men.

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The District of Columbia War Memorial

ROUTE RECON

The District of Columbia War Memorial is located on the National Mall between the Korean War Memorial and the World War II Memorial. It is a 15-20 minute Walk west from the Smithsonian Station on Metro’s Blue Line, Orange and Silver Lines.