He had read all about the controversy over the National World War II Memorial, following the proposal's arduous route from the drawing board to the middle of the Mall. But as A.A. Lanciotti prepared to attend the dedication ceremony, he realized that what was once a casual interest had gained a sense of urgency.
A 63-year-old insurance agent when the memorial was first proposed, Lanciotti is now an 80-year-old retiree. The octogenarian said he sees the finished product differently than his younger self would have.
"I think it makes more of an impression on me now because I'm one of those lucky enough to survive to see it. A lot of guys didn't," said Lanciotti, of Towson, Md., who was an Army Air Corps flight engineer in England. "I feel like I'm looking at it through the eyes of all the guys I knew."
In the month since the memorial opened to the public, the reaction to it has been mixed among architectural critics, generally favorable among tourists and almost universally ecstatic among World War II veterans. The veterans' praise usually has little to do with the memorial's shape, design or symbology; the fact that it exists at all is the important thing.
For almost 60 years -- while the wars in Korea and Vietnam were both waged and memorialized -- World War II lacked a comprehensive memorial in Washington. And for the dwindling generation that fought in the conflict, the years of waiting have made the opening of the landmark that much more meaningful.
It was not until 1987 that the absence of a major tribute to the World War II troops surfaced on Washington's political agenda. At a 1986 fish fry in Jerusalem Township, Ohio, Army veteran Roger Durbin cornered Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and asked her where in the nation's capital he could find the memorial to his war. Durbin had been to Belgium years earlier and seen a memorial to U.S. soldiers there, and he wondered why America did not have one.
When Kaptur mentioned the Iwo Jima statue in Arlington, Durbin balked. It honored one battle, he said, and one branch of the service. And in the years since that statue was dedicated in 1954, the nature of war memorials -- thanks largely to the ambitious commemorations of the Vietnam and Korean conflicts -- had taken on new dimensions.
The following year, Kaptur introduced legislation for a World War II memorial, and the 17-year effort to get it built began. Durbin did not live to see its completion.
"It was the driving force of the last 13 years of his life," Peter Durbin said of his father, who died in 2000. "He spent an untold amount of time at his roll-top desk, writing letters to anyone he thought could help the memorial along."
In 1993, President Bill Clinton authorized the American Battle Monuments Commission to build the project. Over the next two years, advisory commissions were established and a congressional resolution stipulated that the structure be located in the city's monumental core.
Then the project started to attract controversy. Members of a group calling itself the Coalition to Save Our Mall objected to the choice of the Rainbow Pool site between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, as well as to Friedrich St. Florian's design. They argued that the design was too grandiose and that it would block views and pedestrian access on a stretch of land intended to be open.
The coalition, along with other opposition groups, eventually filed a lawsuit alleging that federal review panels had violated a federal ban on new Mall projects when approving the memorial site. The legal battle ended abruptly when Congress passed a law exempting the memorial from any such bans. To help spur the campaign to expedite the project, supporters pointed to the steadily declining population of World War II veterans -- who are dying at a rate of 1,100 a day.
In 1997, former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) was appointed chairman of a national fundraising campaign that eventually would raise more than $179 million in private donations from thousands of veterans, hundreds of corporations and more than 1,200 schools. The project also received a $16 million federal appropriation. Construction of the memorial cost $175 million, and the remaining money went into a fund for maintenance.
With most World War II veterans now in their upper seventies or eighties, the memorial's dedication has become a much-anticipated milestone. The 130,000 tickets for seats to the ceremony and a celebration at MCI Center were snapped up quickly, leaving many to linger without luck on long waiting lists.
Judy Scott Feldman, president of the coalition that opposed the memorial's design and location, takes a less rosy view of the completed project than do the veterans and most of the tourists. She said she is concerned that after the World War II generation is gone, the memorial will lose its personal connection for visitors.
The design is too cold, she said, and -- unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for example, with its roll call of names -- lacks features that will help subsequent generations identify with those who were involved in the conflict. It will stand as an imposing mass of concrete that fails to say anything meaningful about the World War II experience, Feldman argues.
"All the talk about building this for the veterans, that's really a red herring," she said. "You don't build a memorial for the living. What are the long-term prospects for this memorial?"
The memorial's supporters say that criticism of the column-ringed plaza is likely to diminish with the passing of time. The pattern with most major memorials in Washington, they note, has been that they attract vocal opposition in the planning and building stages but later are widely accepted and beloved.
The Lincoln Memorial, criticized for not representing American architectural styles, was finished 55 years after it was proposed. People tied themselves to trees to stop bulldozers from starting work on the Jefferson Memorial, complaining that it was another example of Greek architecture and would endanger the Mall's cherry trees.
The Washington Monument was finished almost 90 years after it was proposed and 40 years after its cornerstone was laid; builders altered its design after work started, scrapping plans for a broad base in favor of a more traditional obelisk. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was derided by critics as a bleak tombstone completely out of place on the Mall, then proved to be one of the city's most popular landmarks.
Many World War II veterans said they have no idea what future generations will take away from visits to the memorial.
Although it probably will not leave them with a full understanding of the war's significance, it might spur them to learn about it on their own by studying history books, some veterans said.
"I didn't get near enough history when I went to school back in the 1930s, so I had to get the rest on my own," said Omer E. McLaughlin, 81, of Fredericksburg. "Maybe they'll do the same."
Hubert B. Estes of Dayton, Va., said he hopes his great- grandchildren will look at the memorial and be inspired to follow his generation's example. "I hope they understand what it means, and I hope when we need them to do what we did, they're willing to do it," said Estes, 84.
Bill Johnson, 76, of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., said that along with the valor and victory celebrated in the memorial, he would like a message of sacrifice to come through. It was a time of both great triumph and great suffering, he said, and the suffering should not be forgotten.
"You better hope they remember that this was a world war, and hope they don't go through the same thing," Johnson said.