April 16, 2004

WWII vets to be honored with memorial in Washington

By Laura Pack
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON — Four thousand gold stars –each symbolizing at least 100 fallen Americans– stud the granite wall to honor those who never came home.

Placed above a shallow pool that will soon be filled with still water, the constellation of handmade stars is mounted on the 84-foot-wide “Freedom Wall” at the National World War II Memorial.

“It’s the only place, when standing, that you can’t see the Lincoln Memorial,” said Betsy Glick, spokeswoman for the American Monuments Battle Commission. The wall, which will have waterfalls on either side, will be a calm and reflective place, free from distraction, she said.

Situated between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, the memorial is a sprawling plaza – a design intended to minimally interrupt the visual sweep of the National Mall, Glick said.

During the war, Glick explained, families of those in the armed forces displayed blue stars in their windows as a sign of support. But when a loved one died, they replaced it with a gold star.

Workers are putting the finishing touches on the memorial, which the commission hopes to open to the public during the last week of April. It will be dedicated May 29. Some bas-relief entrance panels may not be installed in time for the opening, but they should be in by the dedication.

The 117,000 seats made available for the dedication ceremony have been snapped up by members of the World War II generation and their families, Glick said, but a nonticketed viewing area on the Mall has been created to seat about 10,000 more people and allow 30,000 to stand. President Bush is also expected to attend, she said.

When Congress authorized the memorial in 1993, it placed the project under the commission. The $172 million memorial was mostly funded by private donations. Control of the monument will pass to the National Park Service at the dedication, but park personnel will be on site as soon as it opens to the public.

Dedication weekend, called “Tribute to a Generation,” begins May 27 with an array of events. It includes three 11,000 seat shows at the MCI Center called “Salute to World War II Veterans,” and a celebration service at the Washington National Cathedral on the morning of the dedication.

There will also be a four-day “National WWII Reunion” on the mall, produced by the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The reunion will include two large music stages, military equipment displays, a veterans’ services exhibit, and a Reunion Hall where veterans and families can socialize and reconnect with service colleagues.

“It’s not just people who served in uniform or in the armed forces – it’s for the millions in the World War II generation,” said Jim Deutsch, reunion curator.

Organizers of the Memorial Day weekend inaugural ceremonies are expecting as many as 800,000 veterans, “homefront” contributors to the war effort and family members, Deutsch said.

That is no small number, given that of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, less than one-fourth are expected to be alive at the time of the dedication. The youngest of the remaining veterans are about 76 years old.

John Belcastro, an 81-year-old Army vet, plans to come to the dedication. The retired coal miner from Shinnston, W.Va., will join his American Legion post on one of two buses for the trip.

“They waited 60 years to do the World War II memorial,” Belcastro said in a telephone interview. “There were so many that would have liked to have seen it.”

As part of the 10th Armored Division, 3rd Army under Gen. George S. Patton, Belcastro was in the mechanized cavalry. Under Patton, the 3rd Army spearheaded the operation going all the way into Germany, Belcastro said. Then 23, he spent 18 months overseas.

After seeing pictures of the site, Belcastro pronounced it “beautiful.”

The monument’s center plaza spreads across one-third of the site’s 7.4 acres. The rest is covered in grass and trees.

At the plaza’s center is the Rainbow Pool, an existing pool made 10 percent smaller during construction to keep the memorial from overlapping the elm tree walkways, Glick said.

Twenty-four bronze base-relief panels – sculpted to show the transformation of the United States caused by the country’s immersion in the war – will guard the walls of the entrance. Scenes from Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Bulge, agriculture and women in the military are among those included.

The structure, made mostly of South Carolina and Georgia granite, is overhung by two 43-foot arches, which symbolize the Atlantic and Pacific war theaters.

Fifty-six pillars, linked with bronze ropes, stand for the U.S. states and territories, “Showing that it’s one big continuous circle, and we’re connected as one,” Glick said.

The Memorial Day festivities kick off America Celebrates the Greatest Generation, a 100-day celebration throughout the capital region. More than 80 World War II-themed exhibitions, performances, walking tours and hotel packages are scheduled until Labor Day.

“This is the last opportunity for these veterans to gather in large numbers,” Deutsch said. “Washington is going to be an exciting place.”

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