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A Classic Tribute for WWII Veterans

May 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: For millions of veterans, the national World War II memorial on the mall in Washington, D.C., has been a long time coming. Since it opened to the public on April 29, men and women in their 80s and older have come for a first look.

MEMORIAL VISITOR: They made a beautiful spot. I didn’t think it would be this large. My goodness.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some in silence; some eager to talk, but finding it difficult.

ELDERLY VETERAN: Brings back memories. If something’s burning and it smells like human flesh…

JEFFREY BROWN: More than 400,000 Americans lost their lives and 700,000 were wounded in World War II. In all, 16 million Americans served in the armed forces.

TOUR GUIDE: This group’s from Cambria County, Pennsylvania.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, fewer than four million are left. According to government records, they’re dying at the rate of 1,100 a day.

VETERAN: The only thing I hate is more of us are not around to see it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The memorial’s architect is Friedrich St. Florian.

FRIEDRICH ST. FLORIAN, Architect: This is a commission that most architects can only dream about. It’s a commission that comes about perhaps once in a lifetime.

JEFFREY BROWN: For St. Florian, the commission also has an unusual personal twist: During the war that he now honors, he was a child in Austria. He later came to the US As a student and became an American citizen. He’s taught for nearly four decades at the Rhode Island School of Design.

In 1996, St. Florian won a design competition over 400 other entrants to build a memorial between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

He says it tells a story.

FRIEDRICH ST. FLORIAN: When I entered the competition eight years ago, I said wars must be remembered, but must never be glorified, and we have very carefully orchestrated the memorial in such a way that we wanted to celebrate that particular generation, but we did not want to glorify war.

JEFFREY BROWN: The memorial’s central element is a sunken plaza built around a pre-existing, now reconstructed pool with new fountains.

Quotations from wartime leaders appear on some walls.

At the northern and southern ends of the plaza are two arched pavilions, one titled “Atlantic,” the other “Pacific,” to represent the war’s two theaters.

The names of famous battles appear around a fountain at the base of each arch.

FRIEDRICH ST. FLORIAN: From a narrative point of view, this is the moment where we actually celebrate the victory won and where we remember the fighting men.

JEFFREY BROWN: Inside each arch is a large bronze laurel wreath, an ancient symbol of victory, made by sculptor Raymond Kaskey.

FRIEDRICH ST. FLORIAN: If you look very carefully, you will notice the wreaths are suspended by ribbons that defy gravity. And the ribbons in turn are being held in the beak of four American eagles.

JEFFREY BROWN: Surrounding the plaza are 56 columns, representing the home front, with the names of the 48 states at the time, seven territories and the District of Columbia.

FRIEDRICH ST. FLORIAN: We wanted to celebrate an entire generation of Americans. We call it the roll call of the nation, and it’s like children standing in a circle.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pain of war is represented in a wall of 4,000 gold stars, evoking those hung in windows during the war to signify the loss of a family’s loved one. Each gold star here stands for 100 wartime dead.

VISITOR: One of the star’s represents my brother-in-law, killed in Anzio Beachhead, March 29, 1944, my wife’s only brother.

JEFFREY BROWN: In all, the memorial was ten years in planning and construction, cost an estimated $175 million, and now occupies one of the most prominent places on the National Mall — ground zero for the American historical imagination, according to Nicolaus Mills, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and author of a book on the making of the World War II memorial.

NICOLAUS MILLS: It’s probably the most sacred piece of real estate in our country. It marks the capitol, it marks Washington’s monument, it marks the Lincoln Memorial, and now World War II.

So in some ways you can go from the 1780s to the 19th century to the 20th century, and you can see each of the turning points in American history, the places where our very existence was threatened.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new memorial also takes a prominent place in a continuing debate in American culture: What is the purpose of a memorial? What story should it tell and to whom? And what should it look and feel like?

Some of our most familiar monuments took decades to build and were subject to great debate over their intended message and their design.

NICOLAUS MILLS: All our memorials have really been fought over.

In the case of the Washington monument, the first impulse was to have a statue of Washington on a horse resembling Marcus Arelius, not the founder of our country.

JEFFREY BROWN: The debate, says Mills, reflected the Federalist versus Republican politics of the time and how the father of the country should be portrayed. In the end, the building of the obelisk didn’t begin until 1848 and was delayed many times. At one point, Mark Twain wrote it looked like “a factory chimney with the top broken off.” The monument was not finished until 1885.

The Lincoln Memorial was also highly controversial, the site, design, and message, which aspects of his life to emphasize were debated, and the memorial not completed until 1922 — 57 years after Lincoln’s death.

In our own era, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stirred tremendous passions over how to honor those who served in what many saw as a dishonorable war. One veteran early on attacked Maya Lin’s design as “a black gash of shame and sorrow.” But the two black reflecting walls inscribed with the names of the dead came to be seen as a powerful expression of the war itself.

NICOLAUS MILLS: The genius of Maya Lin’s memorial is that she captures both those feelings. She captures the sacrifice, but at the same time she doesn’t glorify the war.

JEFFREY BROWN: By contrast, there was clearly something to celebrate in the World War II victory, but even here, political, historical, and architectural debates were intense and protracted.

JUDY SCOTT FELDMAN: Those of us who have studied the mall, those of us who love the mall realize that something has been lost at the same time we’ve been adding something new.

JEFFREY BROWN: Judy Scott Feldman, an art historian, led strong opposition to the proposed site and message of the memorial, arguing that the area between Washington and Lincoln was meant to be left open and was already filled with historical meaning.

JUDY SCOTT FELDMAN: It was a question of the preservation of the National Mall which 200 years ago was designed and planned as an expression of American founding ideals, and the openness is intended as an expression of democracy, the power of the people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Feldman’s group lost its fight in 2001 when Congress passed a law barring new court challenges.

The memorial’s design was also hotly debated. From the beginning, some prominent architecture critics panned St. Florian’s neo-classical arches, columns, and wreaths as outdated and unimaginative.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why did you feel you wanted to go back to a more classical language of architecture?

FRIEDRICH ST. FLORIAN: I think modern architecture will stand as one of the great, great epochs in architectural history of all time. But like all other great epochs in architectural history, they have their beginnings and they have their peak and they also have their decline. So I feel that very soon we will enter a new era, but we don’t know yet what that era will be.

These memorials are meant to remain forever. I mean, they are maintained, and therefore they will last as long as there is a United States of America. And for that reason, the classical language is the one that throughout architectural history has reoccurred.

JEFFREY BROWN: If the past is any indication, the way this memorial is seen will change over time and with new generations of visitors.

As the nation prepares to dedicate its first national memorial to World War II on Saturday, there is no debate about one thing:

TOUR GUIDE: We salute you guys. You’re the greatest generation!

JEFFREY BROWN: The focus for now is on honoring those who served their country at a key moment in its history.