By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON The sad thing about the official dedication of the long-awaited tribute to “the greatest generation” on May 29 is that “a lot of veterans that won’t be able to see this memorial,” Roderick “Rod” V. Bell, the assistant project manager of the World War II Memorial, said in an in an American Forces Press Service interview.
“More than a thousand World War II veterans die every day,” said the 31-year- old construction engineer, who earned a bachelor’s degree in that field at Norfolk State University in 1996. But at least, he said, many now-deceased veterans of the war knew they were being honored at last. “Some of them saw the memorial as we constructed it before they passed,” Bell said.
“This weekend Memorial Day weekend is going to mark a great event,” said Bell, a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve’s 3rd Battalion, 111th Air Defense Artillery, with headquarters in Portsmouth, Va. “Thousand of veterans are going to come from all over the country to see this memorial.”
Bell is executive officer of Bravo Battery and is slated to take command of the outfit on July 1. As the memorial’s assistant project manager, he is responsible for overseeing subcontractors and for managing, controlling and handling some of the finances, among other responsibilities.
The official dedication of the imposing memorial is May 29, but the memorial opened to the public in late April. Thousands of visitors from around the world have been coming every day since then.
“This is a big tourist season, and a lot of people haven’t seen this memorial, which has taken two years to build,” said the son of a Vietnam veteran who retired from the Air Force as a master sergeant. “The numbers of people who come daily have been by the thousands.”
Bell said some visitors are overwhelmed by the majesty of the mammoth and imposing structure that’s nestled in between the soaring obelisk of the Washington Monument and the splendor of the Lincoln Memorial. Surrounding a rainbow pool inlaid with several fountains, the memorial is an impressive 384 feet long and 279 feet wide.
Authorized by Congress in 1993, construction began in September 2001. The memorial is encircled by a “roll call of the nation,” represented by 56 large pillars representing the U.S. states and territories and the District of Columbia.
“A lot of people come from the U.S. territories, and they’re very impressed by the fact that the monument has the territories on it,” Bell said. “Last week a guy sat there at least 30 minutes rubbing the Guam area, and crying,” Bell said. “I don’t know his ties with World War II, but to see him sitting there crying was very touching.”
As he strolled around the memorial, Bell pointed to “The Freedom Wall” and explained “there are 4,000 gold stars commemorating more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives in the war.” Each star represents 100 American war dead, he explained.
Bell called the World War II Memorial “one of the best on the (National) Mall.”
“The architecture of it, the symbolism it gives you a different feeling,” Bell noted. “While we were constructing this, it was amazing to see the people lined up at the fences ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing.’”
Bell said the spectators would ask, “When is it going to be open? When can we come in?” He said some of the people he talked to during the construction thought building a memorial honoring World War II veterans “is a great thing and a great project,” and that they often seemed impressed that an Army reservist would have such a major role in the memorial’s construction.
“After I told them that I’m a reservist, they would ask, ‘How do you feel that you’ve served on active duty and now you’re helping build a memorial that’s going to be here for generations and generations? Your kids and their kids are going to see it.’
“You just get that special feeling, ‘Man! This is a real special thing here,’” Bell said. “This is something that was long overdue.”
Bell said it’s an emotional experience to hear visitors as they marvel at the architecture. “Some of them have symbolic ties to the memorial,” he noted. “They could be veterans, or just people whose parents may have been a veteran of World War II. Some of them leave flowers, pictures and other items at the pillar inscribed with the name of the state they’re from. Watching them gives you a feeling that you can’t describe.”
He added that some people throw money in the water fountains, but officials ask them not to, because the coins clog the pumping system.
Officials estimate that between 250,000 and 300,000 people will attend the dedication ceremony, Bell said. “Overall, the District of Columbia is expecting more than 1.2 million for the Memorial Day weekend,” he added.
Among the mass of humanity converging at the memorial will be thousands of school children whom Bell said don’t know much about World War II. “You can teach them part of history here,” he noted. “We have numerous school field trips coming here, and I hear the National Park Service teaching them, showing them and explaining to them what this represents.
“So this memorial can teach the younger generation about World War II and what it meant, how many people died for this country and what we stood for,” Bell continued. “On the other hand, you have some people who say this memorial doesn’t really say much and won’t teach this generation anything. So you’ve got people on both sides of the fence. But I think the majority of them are glad this has been built.”
Bell emphasized that in his view, the World War II Memorial is a very important monument to the nation. “A lot of kids can learn from it if they get the chance to come here and actually see it,” he noted.
He said building the memorial was a mammoth task, and that the construction crew worked night and day to get it ready for the dedication. “We’re still doing minor things touching up little things to make sure everything goes smoothly on Saturday,” Bell said.
But some of the workers will never see the fruits of their labor, Bell said. “Some of our close co-workers have passed away,” he noted. “One of our superintendents (James R. McCloseky) passed away and never got to see this memorial finished. But I’m quite sure he’s watching from above and smiling down on some of the work he did on this job.”
Bell found out that he would be working on the memorial while he was among more than 35,000 reservists providing homeland defense and civil support services while serving on active duty during Operation Noble Eagle. “It was a great feeling knowing that I was going to be building a memorial for military veterans,” he said. “It was something I really wanted to be a part of.”
As construction projects go, Bell said, he’s seen bigger ones in terms of dollars and cents, but none that seemed to matter nearly as much. “I’ve done big jobs before, and money-wise, this isn’t as big,” he said. “But the significance of what it means is more than I imagined.”