For the Great War, a Peaceful Memorial
By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004
The World War I memorial was quiet this week when I stopped by to take a look. The cicadas were making their metallic whine, and there was construction equipment scattered about, but I thought I had the place to myself, a rare corner of monumental Washington that wasn't besieged at this dedicatory time of year.
Then I heard voices coming from above my head, and I looked up. Binh Nguyen and Raymond Wooden were in the basket of a bright orange cherry picker I had thought was empty.
Not too many people around, I said.
"Nobody knows it's here," said Binh, after he'd lowered the cherry picker and stepped out. We were in a grove of trees just off the Mall, between the new World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. Twelve marble columns held up a marble dome, the edge of which was ringed with the words: "A Memorial to the Armed Forces From the District of Columbia Who Served Their Country in the World War."
In 1931, when Herbert Hoover dedicated the memorial, we hadn't started numbering our world wars yet. One was quite enough, thank you.
Washington doesn't have a big blockbuster monument to World War I. The Great War is remembered in a few different places. There's a statue-topped stele honoring the First Division over near the Old Executive Office Building, the gulls-over-a-breaking-wave Navy-Marine Memorial off George Washington Memorial Parkway and a monument to nurses who died in World War I in the garden of the Red Cross headquarters.
My favorite, though, is this one. It looks like a Greek temple. You wouldn't be surprised if a nymph and a satyr trotted by.
On Tuesday it was quiet, a setting for contemplation, especially compared with the World War II memorial, from which I'd just come. There the fountains roared, the crowds milled, the forklifts hauling rolls of fresh sod beep-beep-beeped.
Taking it all in were World War II vet Bill Morrison, 79, who lives in Odenton, his son, Bob, and grandson Brian.
I asked Bill what he thought of the new memorial, his memorial.
"They haven't impressed me so far," he said. "It's so repetitive and lacking in information."
This was a problem, he said, since kids today don't know anything about his war. He admitted that some of the fault might lie with veterans such as himself, who returned from the war after the War to End All Wars in no great rush to talk about what they'd experienced.
So, what did he feel, I asked.
"I was too young to feel anything," Bill admitted. "I was 19, what did I know? But it was the greatest adventure I ever had."
He was stationed with the Army Air Forces in England and went on 34 missions in a B-17, a bombardier who sometimes manned the nose gun. To unwind, he'd go to a pub called the George and Dragon. It featured a roaring fireplace and a painting above the bar that depicted a dead dragon, a lance buried deep in its heart. Sticking out of the dragon's open mouth were a pair of armor-clad legs. The title of the painting was "Fifty/Fifty."
"It reminded me of what we were doing," Bill said. "We bombed the hell out of them, and they shot the [stuffing] out of us."
If Bill had one word to describe the memorial, it would be "austere." "There ought to be flags of all the allies," he said. "It needs more color to it."
(What do I think of the memorial? It certainly implies that World War II was a great big war, but it's oddly lacking in emotion.)
Of course, there's not much context or color to the World War I memorial, either, where I fled to escape the sun.
With the massive World War II about to draw even bigger crowds, the memorial to the First World War needed some TLC. So Binh and Raymond, masons in the National Park Service's preservation office, were replacing missing mortar from the domed memorial's roof, which has been leaking of late. They were using a special soft mortar, replacing the hard mortar that had caused some of the memorial's marble slabs to crack.
"When they did it, they thought the harder the better," Raymond said.
The monument honors District residents who died during World War I. Five hundred names are engraved around the base of the memorial. An inscription reads: "The names of the men and women who gave their lives in the world war are here inscribed as a perpetual record of their patriotic service to their country. Those who fell and those who survived have given to this and to future generations an example of high idealism, courageous sacrifice and gallant achievement."
Those who made the ultimate sacrifice include Edward T. Comegys, a lieutenant who lived at 2126 Q St. NW and was killed in an accident. And Capt. Alfred Glascock of 1011 N St., dead from disease. And Stanton F. Kalk, an Annapolis graduate who was erroneously included at first among the survivors of a German U-boat attack ("Kalk Saved, Mother Was Told; Heard Truth Later," read the heartbreaking headline in The Post). And Chester W. Buchanan, killed in action on Nov. 10, 1918, one day before the armistice was signed.
Before I visited I'd put "World War I Memorial Washington" into Google. It asked me, incredulously, "Did you mean 'World War II Memorial Washington'?"
No, I meant World War I. But it prompted an unsettling thought. How much longer before the query "World War II Memorial Washington" is met with this scary message:
"Did you mean 'World War III Memorial Washington?"