In the end, they got their memorial. Members of the World War II generation waited almost 60 years for their space in the nation's capital, but now that they have it, they've transformed it into a living stage on which people of all ages can mingle and learn. It's a performance no one should miss.
I toured the World War II Memorial on a recent summer morning with my parents, Ann and Frank, both now in their 80s.
My father was in the Army in North Africa and Italy. "My outfit landed in Casablanca, but Bogart wasn't there!" he likes to say.
My mother worked as a welder in Pittsburgh's Dravo Shipyards. "We were not Rosie the Riveter," she says. "We welded ships. Rosie got all the attention. No one ever gave us a name!"
Their war was the first to take place in theaters -- the Atlantic and Pacific for the soldiers, sailors and airmen; Main Street's movie houses for the folks back home. And like the marquees of rival cineplexes, the memorial's two pavilions announce what they're showing: one proclaims "Atlantic," the other "Pacific."
Etched in granite at the base of each pavilion are the names of that theater's major battles. Some are familiar to younger generations, thanks to celluloid tributes such as "Pearl Harbor," "Midway" and "Battle of the Bulge." Others probably are just names to many younger visitors.
The memorial has become a place for greetings and storytelling. The World War II cast moves slowly across its stage, but its members chat amiably about their home towns, about how they met their "girl" or "guy," about life in a simpler time.
They chat without the need for formal introductions. At their age, in this place, no one is a stranger. Their voices are relaxed and reminiscent, untainted by bitterness or grief. The years have freed them from the hatred and fear of long-ago, distant enemies, people we now embrace as allies and friends. The years have made them grateful just to be here.
The memorial's "no name cast" changes daily, but it always plays to an appreciative audience.
Near the Rainbow Pool, younger generations shake hands and volunteer a "thanks for what you did." By the Atlantic and Pacific pavilions, where the battle names are carved, teenagers and young adults ask veterans, "Which battles were you in?"
And, "Where is that place, anyway?"
The cast members respond with stories about how they once "liberated" a bottle of French wine or outwitted a superior officer. Occasionally, one appears in costume -- a uniform pressed sharply, somehow still managing to fit. It's a grand sight.
In their youth, the World War II generation learned to fight; then, they learned to heal. Slogans of victory are scattered throughout the memorial. The true worth of their deeds, however, is found in the faces and voices of those who now cross the oceans to come here from democracies of their own. These people from "conquered lands" roam the memorial as though it were their own. And so it is, because the World War II generation had the wisdom and grace to recognize that no one wins unless everyone wins.
The memorial's location on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial was controversial. So was its design. But after our visit to the site, my father said, "I don't see what the fuss is about. It's not that bad."
A fair observation, at least when the space is enlivened by its World War II cast. Later, the memorial could be made more dignified and attractive with minor set changes -- perhaps removing the wreaths and the top portion of the pillars representing the states. Ironically, these elements have a vaguely fascist feel; worse, they block views from the Rainbow Pool area.
Also, the "commemorative area" facing the Lincoln Memorial might be reconfigured by removing the wall of stars so that the waterfall could extend along the entire length. This would provide an unimpeded, dramatic view of the Lincoln Memorial.
If you visit the memorial, say hello to those hardy delegates of the World War II generation. Congratulate them because they had heroes, because they are heroes. Congratulate them because in the end, they are their own best memorial.
-- Frank Thomas