- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2004

Salute in stone culmination of a 17-year campaign

A national memorial to honor World War II veterans seemed like a simple, popular and long-overdue idea in 1987, when Rep. Marcy Kaptur first filed a bill calling for its creation.

But her bill was just the start of a marathon of authorizing legislation, design considerations, fund-raising challenges and site disputes that ended with last month’s unveiling of the $175 million granite monument on the Mall.

The process has “taken 17 years, about four times as long as it took to fight the war,” says Mrs. Kaptur, Ohio Democrat. “It’s heartbreaking. This should have passed in 1987. But in the end, we were victorious.”

More than 150,000 people, including President Bush, are expected to attend the official dedication of the National World War II Memorial May 29, during Memorial Day weekend. Among the Mall’s visitors that day will be some of the nearly 4 million veterans of the first true global war.

“They’re the most unselfish generation America has ever known,” Mrs. Kaptur says. “That’s why there was no World War II memorial before, because they never asked for it themselves.”

Though slow-going, the memorial project was infused with a sense of urgency — a race against mortality. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of a 1,000 a day. More than 16 million survived the war; more than 10 million were alive when the memorial was proposed in 1987.

“As a World War II veteran, I think it’s 60 years too late. It’s about time that memorial came into being while all the vets are still alive,” says John Dolibois, 86, of Cincinnati. “It’s high time, and I think it’s a great honor that, finally, those who fought in World War II will be recognized.”

Born in Luxembourg, Mr. Dolibois is the lone surviving interrogator of the Nazi war criminals who were prosecuted at Nuremberg, Germany, in 1945. He spoke French and German, served with the 16th Armored Division and then was transferred to military intelligence near the end of the war.

Mr. Dolibois will visit Washington during the Memorial Day weekend to share his war stories as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s four-day reunion celebration on the Mall. The celebration will include more than 30 hours of panel discussions as well as guest speakers, interactive displays and bands playing World War II-era music.

The dedication and celebration are expected to draw about 800,000 people over four days.

“All these years, nothing was done for the World War II boys,” says Don Kraps, 79, of Lacenter, Ky.

An aviation machinist mate on the USS Santee from 1943 to 1946 in the Pacific theater, Mr. Kraps traveled with 539 other World War II veterans from western Kentucky to visit the memorial earlier this month.

• • •

The idea for the National World War II Memorial was born at an Ohio fish fry 17 years ago.

A World War II veteran named Roger Durbin confronted Mrs. Kaptur as she attended a dinner for township trustees in Lucas County.

“Congresswoman, where is the World War II monument in Washington?” Mr. Durbin asked.

She said it was the Iwo Jima memorial.

As a crowd gathered around, Mr. Durbin explained that the Iwo Jima memorial was dedicated to one battle and one branch of the armed services — the Marine Corps — and was located in Northern Virginia, not the District.

Mrs. Kaptur’s staff researched the issue, and she proposed a bill to authorize a World War II memorial in the nation’s capital.

It took six years to pass because, Mrs. Kaptur says, a few members of the House wanted to privatize the memorial’s fund raising to give themselves lucrative jobs after they left Congress.

“We had to fight off the wolves — that was probably the most shocking aspect of this,” the 11-term member of Congress says. “There was a lot of money to be made here, and I think people were licking their chops.”

The first $7 million for the memorial’s construction was raised by 1995 through the sale of commemorative government-issued gold coins. The rest eventually was raised through donations to pay for the $175 million monument. An extra $20 million was raised and has been put in a trust to pay for the memorial’s upkeep.

On May 25, 1993, President Clinton signed Public Law 103-32, authorizing the American Battle Monuments Commission to build a World War II memorial in the District or nearby.

The memorial’s advisory board originally planned to place it next to Constitution Gardens, close to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In 1995, however, the board decided to build the memorial on the central axis of the Mall, around the Rainbow Pool and between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

Regulations on Mall construction forbid moving the Rainbow Pool, which was built in 1926, but Friedrich St. Florian, architect of the memorial, found a loophole.

“It didn’t say anything about lowering the pool,” says the memorial’s project executive, Barry Owenby. “It was a good loophole.”

Mr. St. Florian designed a sunken granite plaza surrounding the pool, with 56 pillars, representing the wartime U.S. states and territories, forming parentheses on the south and north ends, anchored by two 43-foot memorial arches, representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

• • •

The site selection drew heavy criticism from those who said it would ruin or disrupt the Mall’s open space and the view between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

“If we don’t have our public space and our commons, where do we go to celebrate, to demonstrate?” asked Judy S. Feldman, president of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. The group was incorporated in 2000 and has two vice presidents who are World War II veterans.

The American Battle Monuments Commission broke ground on the new memorial in November 2000, but construction was delayed in March 2001 by a lawsuit filed by Mrs. Feldman’s group. Congress settled the issue two months later when it passed legislation ordering construction to begin immediately.

Construction got under way in August 2001. The most difficult part was building a slurry wall around the perimeter of the memorial, which sits on 7.4 acres. The slurry wall is similar to the one installed at the World Trade Center area in New York City after the September 11 attacks. It is 2 feet thick and goes to a depth of about 38 feet; the World Trade Center slurry wall is 3 feet thick and extends to a depth of about 80 feet.

“It’s the same principle: You’re keeping water out,” Mr. Owenby says.

By February 2003, construction crews had built the memorial’s slurry wall, its labyrinthine tunnels 30 feet underneath the plaza and its concrete base.

Then came the granite — 17 million pounds, or 8,500 tons, of it. There was white granite from North Carolina, a darker “green” granite from Brazil for the squares in the plaza and black granite from California for the pool.

• • •

Visitors’ reviews of the memorial have been overwhelmingly positive, though Mrs. Feldman retains her criticisms after visiting April 29, the National World War II Memorial’s opening day.

“We’re going to live with it. It’s there. The fountain is beautiful, but of course the fountain was there to begin with,” she says.

“You have to imagine August. Sunken plaza, no trees, no wind. Then you have to imagine January. No water, no fountains and cold. It’s a memorial that’s going to have attractive character for maybe six months of the year,” Mrs. Feldman says.

Bob and Dottie Tull of Falls Church dropped their objections to the memorial after visiting it on opening day. Mr. Tull, 78, a World War II veteran, and Mrs. Tull, 76, thought the memorial would interrupt the view between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

“I thought it was going to look awful,” Mrs. Tull says. “It’s not as obtrusive as we thought it could have been.”

Mr. Owenby, when told of comments like the Tulls’, says, “There’s nothing like Saul on the Damascus road.

“Regardless of who said what, the memorial speaks for itself now, which is another great thing about democracy. You decide,” he says.

Yet with the memorial built and its dedication eight days away, one question remains.

“Why did it take so long? When the guys came home from World War II, they had the parades, the GI Bill; everybody loved them, and they were just concerned with getting on with their lives,” Mr. Owenby says. “They didn’t need a memorial.

“The closer we got to the end of the century, the more we started thinking about World War II, because it was the seminal event of the 20th century.”

Mr. Owenby says the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, opened in 1982, was needed to heal a divided nation. Mike Duggan, 67, who served two tours as an Army officer in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969, agrees but says the World War II Memorial still should have come first.

“It maybe should have been our first monument,” Mr. Duggan says. “The other side of that is that the Vietnam vets never got their parades. The World War II vets, they had the gratitude of the country.

“When you consider what they did in four years, they basically took on the world. It’s just amazing. We’ll probably never see anything like it again,” he says.

• • •

About 65 percent of the 117,000 tickets distributed for the May 29 dedication were given to veterans. There will be about 7,000 first-come, first-served tickets and 25,000 to 30,000 standing-room spaces on the Mall. The waiting list for tickets was about 50,000 people.

“It’s a big deal for a lot of us old buggers,” says CBS newsman and “60 Minutes” host Mike Wallace, who was a Navy communications officer from 1943 to 1946.

“It’s incredibly significant because it’s recognition within their lifetimes that the country now understands the trauma of this warfare,” says Joe Balkowski, official historian of the 29th Infantry Division. “It’s an understanding they deeply appreciate, that within their lifetimes it’s finally recognized that the trauma they experienced was a necessary price for the ultimate victory.”

The 29th Infantry Division, comprising soldiers from the D.C. region, landed on Omaha Beach in France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The division lost 2,000 of its 14,000 soldiers that day.

Still, many of those who survived never got to see the memorial that commemorates their heroism and self-sacrifice. That includes Mr. Durbin, the Ohio man who asked his congressional representative at a fish fry in 1987 why there was no national World War II monument.

He died at age 79 in 2000, four months before ground was broken on the memorial.

Mrs. Kaptur says that when she stands on the memorial’s dedication platform eight days from now, she will remember something Mr. Durbin said to her to fight discouragement.

“Roger said, ‘I want it for my grandchildren, so they will come to know the causes for which I fought.’ This was for the future. He was very focused on the next generation. I have to keep that in mind as I’m very bittersweet about the time that’s passed,” she says.

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