For Veterans, an Emotional Landmark
WWII Memorial Taps Deep Feelings
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2004; Page A01
After 56 years of marriage, Jean Kidd figured she had seen just about everything her husband possibly could show her. But as the Ohio couple surveyed the new National World War II Memorial yesterday, Karl Kidd sprung a new one on her.
"I had never, ever, seen him cry," said Jean, who married Karl two years after he got out of the Navy in 1946. "Today I saw him cry."
They were among the first visitors to descend on the long-awaited memorial, arriving minutes after it opened about 9:30 a.m. Karl, 78, stood in front of the 43-foot-tall arch that represented the Pacific theater of war, where his Avenger torpedo bomber was shot down when he was 18. A narrow glint of water was trapped between the bottom frame of his eyeglasses and his cheek as he read an inscription about the Battle of Midway.
"To make him cry," his wife said, "now that's doing something."
Thousands of people -- busloads of students, cane-toting veterans escorted by their grown-up children, office workers on their lunch breaks -- got their first glimpse of a memorial that has been 17 years in the making. And like Jean Kidd, many of them also got unexpected glimpses of entirely unprecedented events, small-scale dramas seen and heard within the landmark's 7.4 acres.
For the first time in his 90 years, William O. Abernathy heard someone -- namely Nick Falcone, a 13-year-old on a school trip from Norwalk, Conn. -- ask him for his autograph. Taken aback, Abernathy, a resident of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington, smiled and penned his spidery signature on a National Park Service brochure.
For the first time in his 81 years, Harry Atanossian of Kensington heard two students young enough to be his great-grandchildren, both on a school trip from Detroit, ask if they could shake his hand.
For the first time in his 84 years, John Pettavino watched a woman he had never met walk up and thank him for something he did on another continent, when his hair was another color, back in a time that he assumed had been relegated to ancient history by younger generations.
"I'm so glad I got to see this," said Pettavino, a resident of Metairie, La., who is visiting his daughter, who lives in Arlington. "I was hoping it would open before I died, because I'm going on 85 now."
The idea for a memorial was introduced in Congress in 1987, and it endured years of debate as federal panels tried to decide how it should look and where it should go. The site chosen in 1995 -- between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial -- was criticized by some who said it would create an unwelcome obstruction on the Mall. And some said the design was too grandiose, too triumphal and not poignant enough for those who did not have a personal connection to the war.
Some critics certainly remain, but they were hard to find in yesterday's crowd of camera-carrying tourists and curious locals.
"I think it's quite beautiful," said Peter Meister, 31, a NASA employee who walked to the memorial during his lunch hour. "It's really not so interfering with the line of sight as everyone said it was going to be."
The memorial's main plaza is set six feet below street level, which designers hoped would allow people standing at either the Lincoln Memorial or the base of the Washington Monument to gaze over the new structure. Kim Steenberg, 34, a State Department employee who joined Meister for a lunch-hour tour, said the technique worked.
"When approaching it from the [north] side, I thought it would be this big thing that would interfere with the skyline," she said. "But I could barely see it at first. It's set kind of low."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Henry J. Wilayto of Concord, Mass., a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war, tours the memorial with his wife, Helen.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)