Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The World War II Memorial

By Donald Sensing

Spring break was last week here in Clarksville, Tenn. So my wife, daughter and I hopped in the Camry and went to Washington, D.C. We went first to Durham, N.C., to pick up my father-in-law, Col. (ret.) George Stephens, USAR. George was drafted into the Army in the summer of 1941 for one year. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December, all service terms were extended, basically, indefinitely. ("Stop loss" is no new concept.) Massive inductions of both draftees and volunteers began immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack. George said that before his original year's service was up, he discovered he was already an "old soldier." We went to DC to take George to the National World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004 (IIRC) and which he had never seen. George, a widower, will turn 89 in June. It was a quick trip - up to Ft. Belvoir, Va., on Wednesday to stay the night, then into DC all day Thursday and back to Durham that night. The Memorial is located at the end of the reflecting pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. It is a large memorial, befitting a big war. This is a pic from the memorial's web site.

The north end is dedicated to the Atlantic-area campaigns and the south end to the Pacific area. George served exclusively in the Pacific, continuously overseas for 39 months, taking part in eight combat amphibious assaults and the ensuing campaigns. Though a member of the Medical Service Corps, he personally saw heavy combat but was never wounded. I am reminded of Bill Mauldin's classic cartoon of frontline medical personnel:

Caption: "The reason ya don't git combat pay is 'cause ya don't fight."

George was not a medic, but served in aid stations close to the fighting lines and routinely went into the fighting to evacuate the wounded. He has spoken movingly to me of the men who died of their wounds on the way back to the aid station and of a few who were shot to death by the Japanese as George was carrying them to (presumed) safety. There was one occasion (or only one that he told me of) when his position was strafed by Japanese Zero fighters. He said it so provoked his ire that he jumped up with his Garand rifle and shot a couple of clips back at them. Didn't hit them, of course, and later he said he wondered why he did something so foolish, since he had left the nominal safety of his foxhole to stand up to shoot his rifle.

A passerby agreed to take this photo of the four of us standing under the Pacific campaign memorial tower. George was a staff sergeant when fighting in the Luzon campaign. During the campaign, he was commissioned a second lieutenant by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

As you might imagine, there are a number of World War II vets and their family members at the memorial on any given day. The gentleman below, left, is from Seattle. I regret that I did not write down his name. He was a B-17 pilot in Europe. He told us he had two bombers shot out from under him, one by flak and the other by the German jet fighter, Messerschmitt 262, armed with 30mm cannon. He said that the Messerschmitt completely wrecked his B-17 in only five seconds of shooting. He was able to land the plane at a US air base in Belgium, but so severe was the damage that the ground crew simply bulldozed it off the runway and scavenged it for what undamaged parts they could get. He also landed the flak-hit bomber, but it was unrepairable, too. His son-in-law, who was with him last week, told me that he went on after the war to become a nuclear physicist.

Here is a view looking from the World War II Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial. The waterfall in the foreground is part of the war memorial, it is not connected to the reflecting pool that lies beyond it.

My father-in-law was called to active duty for two years in the Korean War, serving the entire time at the base hospital at Fort Benning, Ga. Here he stands at the Korean War Memorial, a couple of hundred yards to the southeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The Korean War Memorial is neither as large nor as inspiring as the World War II Memorial. I will say, though, that it seems to be visited devotedly by Koreans who come to DC. There were many Koreans there when we were there. Having served in Korea, I recognized the language even though I cannot speak it.

We stopped to see the cherry blossoms along the tidal basin. I snapped this picture of George standing across from the Jefferson Memorial. I am proud, and awed, too, to say that he is one of the Americans who saved the world from fascism and tyranny when everything dear to civilization was threatened with destruction. It was by his efforts and those of his comrades (never to forget those who gave their lives!) that Jefferson's ideals survived. He helped preserve what he there surveyed.

Below is a video I took of George narrating his service record in the Pacific, walking along the campaign pool under the Pacific tower. Of the 20 campaign locations engraved into the stones, George fought or served at 10 of them. The ambient noise at the memorial is very high from all the waterworks, so you'll have to listen closely to hear George's voice.



Richmond said...

Wow - such a wonderful and brave man. Thank you for posting this...

Dale B said...

I was in DC last spring. It was the first time I'd been there since high school. I just stumbled onto the Korean War Memorial. I didn't even know that there was such a memorial.

For some reason it moved me more than the WWII memorial. Maybe because it was about the people and was more than just piles of stone.

Anonymous said...

Thank you George and thank you Donald. I would like to take my father to the memorial as well. His health precludes that.

I am a Grenada/Lebanon vet. We have a wall in Jacksonville, NC. I would encourage y'all to visit that as well.

Tun Tavern Derelict

Steve Rosenbach said...

Thank you for this moving post.

My everlasting gratitude to Col. Stephens and his comrades-in-arms for their service to our country.

Best regards,
Steve Rosenbach
Arnold, MD

Citizen Grim said...

I think the WWII memorial is impressive and fitting, and serves as a beautiful tribute to an amazing generation of people.

My parents both met while attending school on Luzon in the 70s (they were American missionary kids). If not for the selfless sacrifice of men like George and hundreds of thousands of others like him, they would never have had that opportunity, and I probably wouldn't be here today.

The actions of individual men and women can alter the course of history forever. Please convey gratitude to George for his service.

Kadai Sono Narabi said...

There is a VFW hall where I visit almost every thursday morning because a large number of WWII air-vets gather there to have breakfast and reminisce.

I love to hear the stories and they love having an audience; they appreciate the fact that I'm only in my thirties yet so interested in the history. Hopefully some of those vets will still be around when my young son is old enough to understand what they did.

Bob K said...

Thanks for this. I've been wanting to take my grandfather there. He's also a veteran of the Pacific Theatre. He'll be 95 this year. I need to do it soon.

Michael said...

Fine post. I had heard negative things about the memorial-- basically that it evoked fascist art-- but I was pleasantly surprised and very moved by the real thing. Its elements are not so large that they overpower the viewer, and they evoke humane midcentury American architecture, not inhumane fascist architecture. It really looks like it belongs to its time, and to the men who fought then. It is well worth a visit.

Teresa said...

What a wonderful moving post. Thank you so much George for all you gave to keep our country free. Thank you Donald for letting us meet George.

Bill White said...

Perhaps you (and some of your high-traffic blogging friends) could post something about Honor Flights, an organization that arranges free transportation for WW2 veterans to the memorial in DC.


I'm not affiliated with them; the realtor who helped up buy our house, a WW2 veteran who runs marathons and has more energy than most teenagers, used their services last summer. Here's an article from a local paper.

JHP2 said...

Thanks Donald. Please pass along the thanks and well wishes of all of us. They were a generation of remarkable people. We owe them everything.

Anonymous said...

I too was at the WWII memorial with my familiy right before Easter. It is a wonderful memorial to honor the greatest generation who fought for our great county. Thank you and all who served. I and my family are truly grateful for your sacrifices

Andrewdb said...

Thank you for a moving post.

I did not expect to like the WWII memorial - oversized, breaking up the visuals of The Mall - but once it was up I have decided I was wrong and it works very well.

I highly recommend the Korean War Memorial after dark - like all the memorials it is lighted, but the lighting of the statutes, seemingly frozen while on patrol, is just great. It is really wonderful.

SMGalbraith said...

Thank you for this.

We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants.

God bless.


Mark said...

Well done. My wife and I took the whole family out to DC this past week. We both ended up taking a lot of group photos for folks that we did not know at many of the memorial sites. Whether one of us snapped your pic or not, I was glad to be able to offer even that small kindness to so many who have blessed us with much more profound service.

Peter said...

Thanks for posting this. The WW2 vets in my family died before the Memorial was built.

If the Memorial had been built while they were alive they would have said it was for the guys that didn't come home.

Anonymous said...

Simply beautiful

exhelodrvr1 said...

The National Archives (in DC) has the records of military units; if you know the unit your relative(s) served in, you can go there and they will retrieve the record for you, and you can make copies of it. The records contain things like the daily reports, muster sheets, casualty lists, etc. IT is also possible to get copies of the individual service records of relatives; about half of those (from the WWII era) were destroyed in a fire, so they may not be available. Information on how to do this is on the web site of the Archives. Pretty interesting material!

Anonymous said...

Tun Tavern,

You have a memorial in Grenada as well. Climbing a low hill and rounding a corner on the island there is a ramshackle, cinder block gas station. On it's wall is a six foot painting of the 82nd Airborne patch and the words, "Thank you America."

RightWingNutter said...

We don't call 'em The Greatest Generation for nothing. Both my parents served in Burma keeping the Japanese out of India. (Mom was an Army nurse, and outranked Dad throughout the time they were both in.) They're both in their 90's now, living in California, so they'll never get out to see it.

Most of the men on both sides of my family of that generation served in one part of the world or another. Besides my folks only an uncle is left. He and my aunt were at Pearl Harbor. She came closer to being killed by enemy action than he did. He jumped on a 6x heading toward the main action. As she watched her husband go down the road, a Zero strafed her and their house. Miraculously she wasn't hit.

They're both too ill to get out there either.

Thanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

There are a bunch of bronze bas relief plaques that I suppose could be said to have a "fascist art" feel to them. They are representations of all the kinds of work that soldiers and people did to aid the war, from repairing planes, building ships, medical exams of recruits, and battles. But I felt it was a good counterpoint to the simple listing of place names on the rest of the monument. And they give non-vets something to look at and talk about. It made it easy to get the kids involved by pointing and asking what is going on in that picture?
I brought a vet from Minnesota there last fall and he really liked it. I think it fits in down on the mall quite well.
Carl Keller

amr said...

I took my 81 year old father there for a day this past fall; something that he had wanted to do for some time since his health is failing and he had had two trips with some of his peers cancelled. We lingered for a while as he reflected on his service and what he saw in the Pacific and that brought forth his concern for one of my sons who was serving in Iraq.

Last month my son returned to the states after his 15 month tour which made Dad very happy. He promptly took his grandson down to the American Legion post that his father had founded, proudly showed him off and had him join.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very nice post, I love stories like this, a window into the life of one WWII vet.

I'm a baby boomer so growing up meant hearing stories about The War, not usually individual stories told by one of the dads that served because they were pretty reluctant to tell those, but stories about battles, or the many war movies made by Hollywood. The result of this was that I knew about the war and why it was important, knowledge gained by osmosis, but only in recent years have the stories shifted to the perspective of the individual and perhaps that's why I value a post like this so much. It helps to turn the forest into individual trees.

Please pass on to your father-in-law the thanks of another grateful American.


Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

Yes, indeed, for the guys who didn't come home. My father was twice the sole survivor of the sinking of his destroyer, once by a typhoon and once by the Japanese.

Late in his long life he said to me that at his age he by then knew that God's plan wasn't to do some great thing through him, but some descendant who would never have been, had he not been preserved.

Even more moving than this post, however, were the pictures of George swearing your son into the Marines. My son was (many years ago now) sworn into the Air Force by his grandfather.

I suspect both our sons will treasure those moments for the rest of their lives. May you and your future grandson(s) share such a connection as well.

Anonymous said...

I think the WWII Memorial is lovely, but the Korean Memorial, when it's foggy, early in the morning, is ghostly.

Thanks to your father-in-law and all who have made this country what it it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you George and Donald. My husband and I took my Dad to the memorial on my 60th birthday. It was such a memorable experience for all of us. My Marine father is an 89 year old widower also. Very moving to read your comments, so similar to my own feelings. God bless these valent men. Freda Logan St. Croix, V.I.