What could Gen. Douglas MacArthur, perhaps the country’s most-decorated war hero, and poet Joyce Kilmer have in common?

I found the answer at the Douglas MacArthur Memorial in downtown Norfolk, a three-building complex in a lovely tree-lined square, consisting of a gleaming new visitors center; the MacArthur Memorial, where the general and his second wife, Jean, are buried; and the Jean MacArthur Research Center. MacArthur chose to be buried here in his mother’s home town, gratefully accepting the city’s offer to create a memorial in the old city hall and courthouse.

Turns out that MacArthur and Kilmer were brothers in arms, serving together in the 42nd Division in World War I. I learned this at the visitors center’s current exhibit — “Under the Rainbow: the 42nd Division and the Great War” — which it’s showing in anticipation of next year’s 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I.

Details: Douglas MacArthur Memorial

A series of informative panels and stand-alone exhibits tells the story of the 42nd. During its two brief years of existence, its members endured terrible losses, with more than 2,000 killed and more than 12,000 wounded. The display cases contain uniforms, weapons, bugles and other artifacts. Photos show the troops huddled in trenches and marching in blinding snowstorms. The division had been rushed to Europe with little training and even lacked clothing for the winter weather. One case contains a Bible pierced by a bullet hole; it saved the life of the private who carried it in his chest pocket.

MacArthur was a colonel in the 42nd, eventually becoming its commanding general and earning two Purple Hearts and a recommendation for the Medal of Honor. He coined the term “Rainbow Division” to emphasize that its members came from all walks of life and from all over the United States, stretching from coast to coast “like a rainbow.”

Kilmer, most famous for his poem “Trees” (“I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree”), was just as renowned for his reckless bravery. He was killed in action in 1918 during the Second Battle of the Marne.

A display case of Kilmer artifacts includes his dog tags and copies of “Trees” as well as another poem, “Memorial Day.” Quite moving is a photo of MacArthur standing in front of a sea of white crosses on a visit to Kilmer’s grave at the Oise-Aisne cemetery in September 1931. I was astonished by the prophetic message found in several lines from that latter poem, written in 1914:

The roses blossom white and red

On tombs where weary soldiers lie;

Flags wave above the honored dead

And martial music cleaves the sky.

Above their wreath-strewn graves we kneel,

They kept the faith and fought the fight.

Through flying lead and crimson steel

They plunged for Freedom and the Right.

The visitors center also houses a gift shop and a movie theater, where a film of MacArthur’s life is shown, as well as a gorgeous 1950 Chrysler Crown Imperial that MacArthur used as a staff car while he was supreme commander during the occupation of Japan after World War II.

After touring the visitors center, I walked over to the MacArthur Memorial. Formerly the Norfolk city hall and courthouse, this beautiful example of civic architecture was designed in 1850 by Thomas U. Walter, who also designed the U.S. Capitol. Standing in front of the portico is an 8-foot statue of MacArthur by Walker Hancock, a replica of one on the grounds of West Point.

MacArthur and his wife are buried in the rotunda. Surrounding the walls are flags of MacArthur’s various commands, as well as the names of battles. The first and second floors of the memorial are divided into nine permanent galleries arranged in the chronological order of MacArthur’s life. These galleries contain priceless treasures, many of them gifts presented to the MacArthurs during his time as supreme commander in Japan, when he was the virtual ruler of that country. My favorite was a pair of large pale blue cloisonne vases with a flower motif. There’s a fascinating photograph of MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito standing side by side, signed by both men. One of only three in existence, it’s extremely valuable.

The high points of MacArthur’s life are displayed in the Tobey murals, six 7-by-13-foot murals by Alton S. Tobey. Starting with “MacArthur in the Trenches” during World War I, they continue through the Second World War and the Korean War. Iconic moments, such as his triumphant “I shall return” landing in the Philippines, the unconditional surrender of the Japanese aboard the USS Missouri and his “Old Soldiers Never Die” speech to Congress, are included.

Though MacArthur’s fame has diminished somewhat with the passage of time, it hasn’t faded away. One visitor the day I was there, Pavle Paunovic of Zadar, Croatia, said that he’d learned about MacArthur from his father, who always spoke about him. “I know who is MacArthur, and I wanted to see,” Paunovic said.

Yoshi Fujita of Nagoya, Japan, concurred. “The name MacArthur is very famous in Japan,” he said. “Japanese people don’t hate MacArthur. He tried to help the Japanese people. That’s why I have come here.”

Perhaps the greatest controversy of MacArthur’s life was his sacking by President Truman during the Korean War. One display contains a letter MacArthur wrote criticizing U.S. policy, which got him in hot water, as well as Truman’s letter of dismissal.

“MacArthur was a controversial figure, and here you get a sense of the controversies surrounding him,” said visitor Diane Hemingway of Elizabeth City, N.C.

Her husband, Michael, agreed. Regarding his firing by Truman, Michael said, “They show it from Truman’s and MacArthur’s point of view. I like that.”

Outside the memorial, in one of the gardens, is a monument to the civilians imprisoned in Japanese prison camps in the Philippines. It’s a sober reminder that those who suffer the most from war are often civilians, and it was to those people that “I shall return” meant the most.

Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.