After years of debate, WWII memorial may gain final approval today

Thursday, September 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Charles Ornstein / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – America's involvement in World War II lasted less than four years. The fight over a memorial to honor the 16 million who served is stretching into its 13th year.

The wait could soon be over.

The National Capital Planning Commission is expected to grant final approval Thursday to the proposed $100 million memorial on the historic National Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The panel's acting executive director recommended the move in a 15-page report.

Approval would pave the way for a groundbreaking ceremony in November on Veterans Day. The monument would be near the Rainbow Pool at the east end of the Reflecting Pool.

"I view this differently than a memorial to any one person or one battle or one achievement," said Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who sponsored the original bill in 1987 to erect the memorial. "This is really to a people and a time. They preserved freedom for the modern generation, and it's our job to carry it forward."

But critics, including some veterans, are urging the commission to reject the monument because of its size (more than a football field long), its scale (two granite arches and 56 ornamental pillars) and its location (within the National Mall).

They say the memorial would obstruct the public's view of the two neighboring landmarks and would prevent large public demonstrations, such as the 1963 March on Washington where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

And they have grave concerns about the growing number of monuments that have been proposed for the National Mall. For instance, a congressional committee approved a bill this month that would allow construction of a memorial honoring former President Ronald Reagan, even though current law does not allow federal memorials for living people or those who have been dead for less than 25 years.

"The problem is that everybody wants a prominent spot, and the most prominent spot, of course, for memorials is the Mall," said Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. "The meaning of the Mall – the story of the American Constitution – is getting cluttered up by people's favorites or wars, and it really alters the character."

Dying veterans

Supporters of the World War II memorial say it's time to end the delay. Of the 16 million people in uniform during the war, fewer than 6 million are still alive. About 1,000 die each day.

By those counts, fewer than 5 million will be alive when the structure is completed around Memorial Day 2003.

"I'd like to see it get built so possibly I can go up there," said Lynn Steward, a former Texas commander with the American Legion. Mr. Steward of Fort Worth served for 41 months stateside in the Army Air Corps, now the Air Force.

"I'm 76 years old, and there's nothing to keep me from going now if it was dedicated," he said. "But if it continues to go on ... well, when you get to be 76 years old, you don't know what's going to happen."

Indeed, the man who inspired the movement died this year. Roger Durbin, a retired mailman from Ohio, approached his congresswoman, Ms. Kaptur, in 1987 and inquired about plans to honor his generation's sacrifices. Ms. Kaptur introduced legislation that year and pushed until Congress authorized construction in 1993.

"We're dying off like flies," Mr. Durbin said in a 1999 interview with The Dallas Morning News. "Damn it, I want to live to see it."

Ms. Kaptur doesn't hide her emotion when she talks about how her constituent won't see his dream come to fruition. She said she hopes that Thursday's vote – the 18th public hearing held about the memorial – will be the last.

"I can't even tell you how profound an experience ... [Mr. Durbin's death] was for all of us," she said Wednesday. "He wanted to live to see this so very, very much. We could not make the wheels of governance grind any faster."

Initially, the World War II memorial was not intended to be in the middle of the Mall. Two federal commissions selected an alternative site known as Constitution Gardens, located a short distance away. A third panel, however, concluded that the site was not adequate given the historical significance of World War II.

All of the groups agreed to the 7.4-acre Rainbow Pool site, which was dedicated by President Clinton on Veterans Day 1995.

"The World War II memorial will join the ranks of our greatest landmarks because it was one of the greatest and most important periods in our history," Mr. Clinton said at the time. "From this day forward, this place belongs to the World War II generation and their families."

Design issues

The winning design, by architect Friedrich St. Florian of Providence, R.I., was chosen from among 404 submissions in the fall of 1996. It includes a wall of 4,000 gold stars, one for every 100 people who died during the war; 56 pillars, for the 48 states and eight U.S. territories at the time; waterfalls and an eternal light.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation said this month that the monument "has serious and unresolved adverse effects on the pre-eminent historic character of the National Mall." Other critics have likened the structure to a mausoleum and the buildings erected by the Nazis at the height of their power.

Supporters of the memorial call those assertions "outrageous" and "specious."

"I see what this group is trying to do, and it saddens me, quite frankly," said retired Brig. Gen. Pat Foote, a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission. "But the way we build memorials in America is through the process of dissonance, discussion, controversy."

While the acting executive director at the National Capital Planning Commission has recommended final approval for the monument, he has asked planners to submit a new lighting plan that would not detract from nighttime views of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. William R. Lawson also asked for final design plans for the "Light of Freedom," the central sculptural element, which will be placed in the middle of the Rainbow Pool.

$97 million raised

The memorial fund-raising committee, chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole, has raised $97 million toward the $100 million construction budget. That includes donations from 500,000 individuals, 45 states, major veterans' groups and schoolchildren from around the country.

Veteran Richard Loughry of Richardson, who was injured during World War II, called the tribute "long overdue," given that monuments have been erected for veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars.

"This is the Daddy of them all," said Mr. Loughry, 78, who went ashore with the Army infantry in the first wave of the Normandy landing. "This is a war that turned this whole country, this whole world, upside down."