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WWII memorial is generation's touchstone

Its complicated design has drawn criticism, but most early viewers are inspired.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
Published May 24, 2004

[Photo by Linda Spillers]
"This is not just a veterans memorial," says architect Friedrich St. Florian, who designed the sprawling, $174-million project that will be dedicated on Saturday. "We are celebrating an entire generation."

WASHINGTON - The big wall of stars at the National World War II Memorial struck a nerve with George McKinney.

The wall has 4,000 gold stars, each representing about 100 U.S. soldiers killed in the war.

McKinney, an Army veteran, said he knew so many people - friends and relatives - killed in the war that they would account for an entire star. He got choked up as recalled them.

"I lost a brother," he said as a few tears rolled down his cheek. His older brother Cecil died when his plane crashed during a training flight.

Joyce Siler, another visitor at the memorial last week, said it reminded her of the homefront: her father rushing around the house to pull down the shades for a blackout drill, and the sacrifices her family made under the rationing of gasoline and sugar.

She was a teenager during the war and was happy to make the sacrifice. "The boys knew we were behind them," she said.

The memorial, which will be dedicated Saturday at an event attended by 117,000 people, has quickly become a touchstone for the World War II generation, a reminder of courage and sacrifice, tragedy and triumph.

Some people are still unhappy about its classical design (one columnist called it "bombastic") and its location on the precious land between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

But the members of the World War II generation who visited last week said they were inspired by it.

"It's calming," said Helen Loube, 83, whose husband Nathan was in the war. "It brings everything together."

A walk around the memorial

As architect Friedrich St.Florian walked around the memorial Thursday, he was beaming with pride.

"This is not just a veterans memorial," said St.Florian, designer of the $174-million project. "We are celebrating an entire generation."

In contrast to the simplicity of the nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the World War II tribute is sprawling and complicated.

At the main entrance are two walls that will boast 24 bronze panels (only 19 were installed last week) that tell the story of the Atlantic and Pacific wars. They show scenes such as soldiers enlisting, their physical exams, the air and ground wars, Rosie the Riveter, D-day, and the celebration at the end of the war.

Sculptor Ray Kaskey used war re-enactors to pose for the scenes. To avoid repetition, he also had friends, relatives and his UPS delivery man pose. (The face of the UPS employee is visible in a war bond parade and other scenes.) The centerpiece of the memorial is a large fountain. The main plaza is set 7 feet below street level so it does not intrude on the Lincoln and Washington memorials.

The plaza is ringed by 56 pillars to represent the homefront, each with the name of a state or U.S. territory during the war. At the north and south ends of the plaza are two 43-foot arches that symbolize the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

Scattered around the memorial are the names of battles and quotations about the war, including Walter Lord's explanation of the Battle of Midway ("They had no right to win. Yet they did, and in doing so they changed the course of a war.") and Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous line: "Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended."

On the western side of the plaza is the wall of stars, inspired by the stars families displayed in their windows. (Blue stars signified someone was in the war; gold represented those who were killed.)

St.Florian said the wall of stars has been an emotional spot for many veterans. When a group of 300 visited recently, they stood in front of the wall and sang God Bless America.

Long overdue

The memorial opened April 29, about four weeks early, so more World War II veterans could see it. An estimated 1,100 of them die every day, and fewer than 4-million are still alive.

Many veterans who visited last week said it was long overdue.

"It should have been built years ago while the majority of the guys were still around to enjoy it," said Warren Middleton, 81, an Army veteran from Cornwall, Pa.

Why did it take so long?

Nick Mills, author of Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial, said it is a different type of memorial from the Vietnam wall, dedicated just seven years after that war ended. He said the Vietnam wall is a "healing memorial" built so the nation could come to grips with an unpopular war.

Mills said larger monuments that celebrate a major war or a president often take about 60 years. (He said the Lincoln Memorial, for example, was dedicated in 1922.) That time is necessary so people have enough perspective about the president or event, he said. They are typically built when the generation of people involved in the event is beginning to die.

"Often, the need doesn't feel quite so compelling earlier than that," Mills said.

In addition, the World War II generation didn't seek the recognition because - unlike the veterans of Vietnam - they got plenty of acclaim when they came home.

Mills said, "If it's a war in which we've been victorious, we don't feel the urgency."

"Hodgepodge of cliche'

The idea for the memorial came from Roger Durbin, a World War II veteran in Ohio who toured Washington in 1962 and was surprised there was no memorial to the war, according to Mills' book.

But it wasn't until 1987 that Durbin piped up during an event with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. "How come there's no memorial to World War II in Washington?"

That prompted Kaptur to introduce a bill to create a memorial, which passed in 1993. The effort to raise money and win federal approval got a boost from books such as Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation and movies such as Saving Private Ryan.

Along the way, there was lots of controversy.

Many people objected to locating it between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Some said too many memorials had cluttered the National Mall, leaving little room for future generations to erect their own monuments. Others said the World War II plaza would encroach on the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, where crowds gathered for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Others objected to the design of the World War II memorial, calling it "imperial" and "a granite and marble Stonehenge that lacks any kind of celestial underpinnings."

Seeing the finished memorial in the past month has not changed the critics' views.

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher calls the monument a "hodgepodge of cliche and Soviet-style pomposity" and says it "has the emotional impact of a slab of granite."

Judy Scott Feldman, a longtime opponent who heads the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, says the fountain is an improvement over the old body of water there, but she says the rest of the memorial left her feeling despair.

She said, "There is no heart and soul."

Most veterans like it

Of 19 members of the World War II generation interviewed at the plaza last week, only two were unhappy with the memorial.

Staley Adams, an Air Force veteran from Nicholasville, Ky., and his wife, Grace, said the memorial did not capture the magnitude or importance of the war.

The war "is really the biggest thing that's ever happened to this country," Staley Adams said. "They should have had the biggest, greatest memorial."

But other veterans liked it. They said it reminded them of people they loved, battles they fought and a time when America came together.

Nathan Loube, 82, said it brought back memories of how, during the battle of Okinawa, he was reunited with his brother, whom he had not seen in two years. He has had a busy career for 60 years - as a photographer, record promoter and cemetery manager - but he says the war "never leaves your mind."

St.Florian, the architect, is not bothered by the negative reviews. He says memorials often provoke that kind of criticism.

When the Jefferson Memorial was dedicated in 1943, "Frank Lloyd Wright and others said very mean things about it," St.Florian said. "Now it is one of our most-loved memorials."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 24, 2004, 01:00:32]

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