One Veteran Asked: Where’s The World War II Memorial ?

Here is the story of how one man made a big difference. Roger Durbin, a World War II veteran was visiting Washington D.C. from his home in Ohio. He asked to be directed to the World War II Memorial and was told, “There is no WWII memorial.” He was shocked and deeply troubled.

When Durbin returned to Ohio, he attended a political meeting where Marcy Kaptur, (Democrat from Toledo) his Congressional Representative, was also present.  It was l987 — decades after the war had ended  in l945.  During the meeting, Durbin called out, “Hey, Congresswoman Kaptur! How come there’s no memorial in D. C. for World War II vets?”  She answered that there was a memorial “across the river”.  Then she went back to D.C. and discovered that she was wrong. There was no World War II memorial — anywhere in or around Washington.

So began the story of how Roger Durbin worked with Marcy Kaptur tirelessly to build support for a memorial in the nation’s capital to the over 16 million veterans of World War II. It took seventeen years until their dream was realized.  Until the dedication of the memorial on May 29, 2004,  Memorial Day Weekend .  Marcy Kaptur gave the opening address but Roger Durbin did not live to see the day.  He had died four months before ground was broken, but he knew it was going to be built.

Marcy Kaptur introduced legislation for the memorial in l987.  Why did it take seventeen long years to reach fruition?  The plan was to place the WWII Memorial on the Mall which stretches from the Washington Memorial at one end to the Lincoln Memorial at the other.  This famous vista has been the scene of gatherings for peace and protest for generations. Architects have praised the sweep of the expanse and the design that stressed simplicity and open space. Once the Memorial site was proposed, critics attacked the idea as desecrating the beauty and integrity of The Mall.  Supporters stressed the importance of World War II and the enormous contribution that the sixteen million veterans had made to save the nation in its time of dire peril.Over 400,000 had made the supreme sacrifice with their lives.

The arguments lasted for years.  Finally, Congress approved the legislation in l993 andPresident Bill Clinton signed it into law the same year.  During these years, Kaptur and Durbin reached out for leaders to raise the necessary  funds for the Memorial.  No public dollars would be used.  It would all be raised from the people of the United States.  Senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, a decorated World War II veteran who had spent years recovering from his wounds, spear- headed the fund raising campaign. He drew other men and women from the corporate and military worlds into the campaign.  School children sent in their dollars. Commemorative coins were minted. $174 million dollars were finally collected to meet the goals. Ground breaking occurred in 2001.

When the memorial was formally dedicated and opened to the public on May 29, overl40,000 WWII veterans and their families came from all parts of the country to take part. They  represented all branches of the service and wore their uniforms, hats, insignia and medals.  Many expressed their regret that only about four million veterans are still alive. They remembered their comrades with simple stirring words.

Gale Cornwell, 78, a Marine from Arizona who landed on Normandy Beach on D-Day, said, “So many old friends who aren’t here. They’re all gone now.”   Bud Riel, 81, from Washington state, was a Navy Seabee who served in the Pacific.  He said, “It’s a long overdue tribute. If they waited any more years, there wouldn’t be any of us left.”  Senator Dole spoke from the dais, where the Congressional Medal of Honor veterans were seated. His words were eloquent and moving. “If we gather in the twilight, it is brightened by the knowledge that we have kept faith with our comrades from a distant youth. What we dedicate today is not a memorial to war. Rather it is a tribute to the physical and moral courage that makes heroes out of farm and city boys, that inspires Americans of every generation to lay down their lives for people they’ll never meet.”  Marcy Kaptur said she felt “a great sense of fulfillment”. “This generation was the most unselfish America has ever seen. They never asked anybody for  anything in return.”  She was accompanied by Roger Durbin’s granddaughter for the close of her moving speech from the dais.

The sun shone on the veterans and the United States Navy band played both big band  music from the 40’s and military marches for the formal passing of the flags from the fifty states. It was a stirring sight to watch and hear the formal dedication program.  It will be very meaningful to visit Washington, to walk among the granite pillars and to stand silently before The Freedom Wall with 4000 sculpted gold stars, representing the more than 400,000 who were killed in the long hard fight for victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

The inscription carved in the Announcement Stone is the answer to the question Roger Durbin asked — 28 years ago.  “Here in the presence of Washington and Lincoln, one the l8th century father and the other the l9tth century preserver of our nation, we honor those 20th century 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.”

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One thought on “One Veteran Asked: Where’s The World War II Memorial ?

  1. This is a wonderful tribute to all those Americans who served in the war. This monument to the veterans is breathtaking to see. Thanks for your timely blog.

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