The Pentagon Building’s 9/11 Memorials

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Great Tours — Washington, DC

By Richard Kurin, PhD, The Smithsonian

The Pentagon is one of the most iconic buildings in the Washington, DC area. On September 11, 2001, this grand military complex—the headquarters of the Department of Defense—was the site of a devastating terrorist attack. How did the Pentagon memorialize this traumatic national event? 

Pentagon Memorial
(Image: By Mr. Johnson, often nefarious – Flickr: Pentagon Memorial-5097/Public domain)

When visiting the Air Force Memorial on its hill overlooking Arlington Cemetery, take a moment to look out to the east, at the Pentagon, about a quarter-mile away. You may notice a section in the center of the wall where the stone is lighter. This is the spot where American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon at 9:37 am on September 11, 2001.

The 184 victims of that attack are honored in two locations nearby. One is a group burial site in Arlington Cemetery; it contains the remains of 25 identified and 5 unidentified victims. The other is the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

This is a transcript from the video series The Great Tours: Washington, DC. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Impromptu memorials to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack sprang up within days, both at the plane crash site at the World Trade Center in New York City and at the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The impromptu memorial for victims at the Pentagon was at the Navy Annex, a few streets away, and plans for permanent memorials quickly followed.

“Memorial Unit” Benches Symbolize All Lives Lost

The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial is located just outside the Pentagon. In a stark, two-acre field of granite benches—184 in all, one for each of the victims—the “Memorial Unit” is aligned along the flight path of Flight 77, arranged along a timeline according to the victims’ ages and whether they were on board Flight 77 or were in the Pentagon building. The bench nearest the entrance is dedicated to Dana Falkenberg, who was just three years old. The furthest bench from the entrance is dedicated to retired US Navy Captain John D. Yamnicky, Sr., who was 71. Each bench has an illuminated reflecting pool of water underneath it, which lights the overall memorial at night.

Pentagon memorial benches for victims of 9/11
In the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, there are 184 granite benches, one for each of the victims. (Image:  Bill Perry/Shutterstock)

The “Memorial Unit” of benches is surrounded by a memorial wall, where the victims’ names are engraved. The names here are in alphabetical order, listed beside their birth year. It serves as both a memorial in itself and also as a guide to where each bench is located along the timeline. Needless to say, no concerts or celebrations are held at this site, but a memorial service is held here every year on September 11.

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The 9/11 memorial inside of the Pentagon, called the “America’s Heroes Memorial”, is located in the Pentagon’s outermost ring, known as the E Ring, at the location of the plane’s point of impact. The memorial room contains a book of photographs, biographies of the victims, and a small chapel.

The Pentagon memorials and the other 9/11 memorials resonate closely with the heart of our nation, and especially with the families and friends of those who were lost.

Touring the Pentagon

To visit the 9/11 memorial inside the Pentagon’s outermost ring, you’ll need to tour the Pentagon itself. Because it is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense, tours of the Pentagon are highly restricted.

Aerial view of the US Pentagon building in Washington DC.
The pentagon is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense. (Image: Ivan Cholakov/Shutterstock)

Reservations must be made between three months and two weeks of your planned tour date. Every entrant must pass a security screening and visitors over the age of 18 must present a current, valid photo ID to enter. Arrive about an hour before your scheduled tour to ensure you have enough time to pass through security. Please note, there is no public parking at the Pentagon; the closest parking is indeed several blocks away, therefore, public transportation is much more convenient. You can take Metrorail to the Pentagon or Pentagon City stops on the Blue and Yellow lines and walk from there. Metro buses also have stops that get you to the Pentagon.

The 60-minute Pentagon tour covers about one and a half miles of the Pentagon’s corridors. That’s just a fraction of the 3,705,793 square feet of space contained within the Pentagon’s walls. It houses about 23,000 government employees and civilian contractors and is one of the largest office buildings in the world. Despite its size, due to the way the corridors intersect, it is said that it is possible to walk between any two points in the building in less than seven minutes.

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As for what is on the tour, it varies by the tour guide. Security concerns, ongoing construction, or the guide’s experience and areas of interest might all affect your route. Two spots you are likely to visit on any tour, however, include the “America’s Heroes Memorial” and the Hall of Heroes, dedicated to the nearly 3,500 recipients of the US Medal of Honor.

One site you may or may not visit is the Pentagon’s central courtyard. This open green space contains benches where employees often spend their breaks and lunch hours enjoying the sunshine. But the really interesting part of the courtyard is the small building at its very center. Although the building is fairly small, it was large enough to be picked up by the Cold War-era Soviet satellites surveilling the Pentagon. Their intelligence analysts saw groups of military personnel entering and exiting the small building at about the same time each day and they concluded that this was the entrance to an ultra-secure facility, maybe even an underground bunker.

In reality, the building is a hot dog stand. The personnel the Soviets saw were just grabbing a quick bite for lunch.

Levity aside, the Pentagon is the beating heart of America’s military. In times of war and peace, the decisions made and the actions taken inside these very walls can affect every person of this planet. But the Pentagon is also simply another part of everyday life in Washington, DC, somewhere that our friends and neighbors work, somewhere we may drive past every day without thinking about the extraordinary importance of the work that goes on inside.

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Common Questions About the Pentagon’s 9/11 Memorial

Q: When is the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial open to the public?

The Pentagon memorial stays open to the public 24 hours a day, every day of the week.

Q: How many benches are there at the Pentagon 9/11 memorial?

The Pentagon 9/11 memorial has 125 benches to memorialize the victims who died.

Q: How much was spent creating the Pentagon 9/11 memorial?

The Pentagon 9/11 memorial cost approximately 22 million dollars.

Q: Is there any symbolism in the Pentagon 9/11 memorial?

The Pentagon 9/11 memorial is a series of benches with the person’s name inscribed on the edge such that when reading it, if you can see the Pentagon in the background, they died in that building, and if you’re reading a name looking away from the Pentagon, they died on the plane. Below each bench is also a shallow pool with the names of the families inscribed if they had one.

This article was updated on August 29, 2020

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