There were no “national” wars memorials in the nation’s capital until the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was propose in the late 1970’s. Since then there are now three on, or near the National Mall. These honor those who fought in Vietnam, Korea and World War II. Here is a brief history and photos of those three memorials, and what you’ll see on your visit to Washington DC.
The National Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam War was my generation’s war. Many of my high school classmates went off to fight in that conflict, some not coming back. Vietnam also, because of the way our veterans were treated when they returned, helped to change the way American’s began looking at our men and women in service.
The National Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall”
The National Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the first National wars memorial constructed in Washington DC, and was dedicated in 1982. Of the three war memorials it is the smallest, covering just two acres.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, most commonly called just “The Wall,” is located northeast of the Lincoln Memorial, and across the National Mall’s reflection pool from the Korean War Memorial. The Wall was designed by American architect Maya Lin, who was just twenty-one at the time. It also has the most basic design when compared to the other two memorials. Its design is to symbolically show a “wound that is closed and healing.”
Hundreds of items are left at the base of the wall
“The Wall” is made up of two 264 feet 9 inchs long gabbro walls that are etched with the names of the men and women who were ether killed in action, missing in action, or a prisoner of war. These gabbro slabs are sunk into the ground, with the apex where the two walls meet being 10.1 feet high from its base to the top of the wall. The wall then taper off to just 8 inches at each end of its two wings. There are currently 58,307 names listed on the wall, those who died in action have a diamond design next to their names, those who are MIA or a POW have a cross next to theirs. When a death is confirmed of one of those MIA’s or a POW’s a diamond is then superimposed over the cross. Also if a MIA or POW returns home alive their name is circumscribed by a circle, as of this posting this has not yet happened.
From the end of the wall looking down
When you gaze at the wall you can see your reflection along with the names that are etched on it, again this symbolically brings the past and present together. There is a pathway running along the base of the Wall for visitors. Along the wall are hundreds of notes, letter, and other mementos that have been left by family, friends, those who served with or knew one of those listed. These items are carefully collected by the members of the Park Service, and stored for safe keeping. I was told that there’s a plan to build a museum near by to display these items, and to also tell the story of the Wall and the War. There are also members of the Park Service there to help you to find a name listed on the Wall.
“The Three Soldiers” statue near the Vietnam Wall
Off a short distance from the wall, so as not to take away from Maya Lin’s vision, were added three additional components to this memorial. “The Three Solders” bronze statue was added in 1984, The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, honoring the women who served in that war, was then added in 1993, and the Memory Plaques placed near the statues in 2004. This plaque is to remember those who fought in Vietnam but died after the war as a direct result of injuries stuffed there. The plaque reads, “In memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember your service. “
The National Korean War Veterans Memorial
The Korean War Memorial was the second memorial that was built in Washington. It is located across Lincoln Memorial Circle from the Lincoln Memorial, and south of the reflecting pool on the National Mall.
Korean Memorial States of Soldiers on patrol
The ground breaking took place on June 14, 1992, Flag Day, by President George H. W. Bush. It was dedicated on July 27, 1995, on the 42nd anniversary of the armistice that ended that war, by President Bill Clinton and Kim Young Sam, President of the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
The Memorial covers 2.20 acres and is in the shape of a triangle intersecting a circle. As you approach along one of the two tree covered walkways you’ll first notice the gray statues in the center. There are nineteen stainless steel statues representing a squad of soldiers on patrol, marching through juniper bushes and granite strips, these symbolizing the rugged terrain of Korea. I was told that the most moving time to visit this memorial is in the very early morning when the mist surrounds the statues. The statues range from 7 feet 6 inches to 7 feet 3 inches in height, and represents the four branches of the United States services that served there: fourteen for the Army, three for the Marines, a Navy Corpsman, and an Air Force air observer. All of the statues are all in full combat gear. One of the more haunting effects of this memorial’s statures is that no matter where you are standing along the bordering walk, one of them seems to be looking straight at you.
Real veterans images are sandblasted on the wall of the Korean War Memorial
Going up the right side of the memorial is a 164 foot long mural wall of highly polished black granite. Sandblasted into its polished surface are 2,500 actual archival photo images of men and women who were involved in the Korean War. There is a story that actor Allen Alda, of TV’s MASH fame, was so deeply involved in getting this memorial built that his image is one of those on the wall, even though he didn’t serve in Korea.
Along the left side is the United Nations Wall, it lists the twenty-two UN member nations that contributed troops or medical support to the Korean effort. On the south side are three Rose of Sharon hibiscus bushes, the national flower of South Korea.
No matter where you stand, one of the statues is looking at you
At the far end is the semicircle, at the top of the incline that the statue patrol is marching toward, is the Pool of Remembrance. This shallow 30 foot circular pool is lined in black granite and surrounded by a grove of linden trees. These trees create a barrel effect that causes the sun to reflect onto the pool. It is also here were the statistics of those killed, missing in action, or held as prisoners are engraved. Nearby is a plaque that reads, “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.”
There is also one other large granite wall there that bears this simple, but true, message, “Freedom Is Not Free.”
The National World War II Memorial
This is the newest of the three memorials, dedicated by President George W. Bush on May 29, 2004 and opened to public on April 29th. The memorial sits at the eastern end of the mall’s reflection pool, between the Lincoln and Washington monuments.
It is the largest of the three; the plaza is a semicircle 337 feet 10 inches long and 240 feet 2 inches wide. The plaza is ringed by 56 granite pillars, each are 17 feet high. Each pillar is inscribed with the names of the 48 states in the Union at the time of the war, as well as the District of Columbia, the territories of Alaska and Hawaii (then not states), the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
There are two triumphal arches on the north and south ends, the one on the north is engraved “Atlantic” and on the southern one, “Pacific.” These arches represent the two theaters of the war. As you enter through the main entrance off of 17th Street you walk down a slight incline of about six feet to a fountain pool at the center of the memorial. The walls that border this entrance have basic reliefs of scenes of American’s war experiences. Also inconspicuously located on these walls are two “Kilroy was here” engravings. These represent the symbol used by American soldiers to show that we were presence and protecting during the war.
The large fountain pool in the memorial’s center is 246 feet 9 inches long and 147 feet 8 inches wide. On the west side of the pool is the humbling “Freedom Wall.” On it are 4,048 gold stars, each star represents one hundred Americans that gave their lives in World War II.
In front of this wall is inscribed a massage, “Here we mark the price of freedom.”
World War I Memorial
The isn’t currently a national memorial to honor and remember those that served in World War I, there wasn’t a national memorial program at that time. It was up to each individual state, or community to erected their own memorial to honor their citizens that had served in that conflict. You can visit the District of Columbia’s World War I memorial, it’s just a short walk south of the World War II memorial.
There is now a committee formed to work on building a national World War I memorial, there are no details as to when or where that memorial will be.