The United States has a long tradition of acknowledging the service and sacrifice of its veterans with monuments and memorials. In the 1970s, a movement to build national veterans memorials on the National Mall began. See the results of these efforts and tour three powerful veterans memorials.
In this guide, we will discuss:
• The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
• The Korean War Veterans Memorial
• The World War II Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is like nothing else on the National Mall: It is a 500-foot-long, V-shaped wall of black granite. It is engraved with the names of all the servicemen who died during the conflict—more than 58,000 of them.
All but the last few names are listed chronologically, starting with Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr., killed in action on June 8, 1956, to Kelton Rena Turner, killed in action on May 15, 1975. More names have been added, as servicemen once considered missing in action have been confirmed deceased.
The wall’s height tapers from eight inches at either end to 10 feet high at the center, but rather than rising to reach that 10 feet, it sinks into the earth. A visitor descends into the timeline of the war and rises back out again.Later, a more traditional bronze heroic figural statue by Frederick Hart, called Three Servicemen, was later added to the design. It stands some distance away overlooking the wall, symbolically standing guard over the fallen.
The initial drive for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial came from Jan Scruggs. Scruggs served in the U.S. Army on two tours in Vietnam. He was awarded a Purple Heart, three Army Commendation Medals, and a Commendation with Valor. After the war, he dedicated himself to studying post-traumatic stress disorder.
The wall was completed in 1982 and the statue was completed in 1984. After that statue’s dedication, a memorial statue to the 265,000 women who volunteered to serve in the war was proposed. A figural memorial to these women, sculpted by Glenna Goodacre, was added to the site in 1993.
After its completion, the wall rapidly became a site of pilgrimage for those who served and those who lost someone in the war. In addition to making this connection with the past, visitors to the wall made connections with each other. People came to discuss their service, their fallen comrades, and the comrades who were left behind.
If you want to visit the wall yourself, you will find it just a few steps northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. Because of its low-lying form, it is surprisingly easy to miss if you approach it from the wrong direction. This course urges you to seek it out. It is a truly moving experience.
If you wish to find the name of a friend or family member who is memorialized on the wall, there are several ways to find its location. At the memorial itself, at either end of the wall, you will find an alphabetical index of names, which will indicate the number of the panel where the name is found. In recent years, the index has become available as both an online database and a smartphone app.
The D.C. War Memorial
South of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool is the D.C. War Memorial. This small, round, domed structure was dedicated on Veterans Day in 1931 in honor of the 26,000 Washingtonians who served in America’s military during World War I. It is the only monument to local history on the National Mall.
The Korean War Veterans Memorial
On the opposite side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, you will find another wall. In front of that wall stands a group of frozen figures who seem stolen out of time: a group of servicemen, laden with helmets, packs, ponchos, and weapons, their eyes scouring the landscape, alert for signs of danger. This is the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
The groundbreaking for this memorial took place on June 14, 1992, presided over by President George H. W. Bush. The monument as it stands today was both influenced by and was a departure from the earlier Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Again, it has a reflective black granite wall. It is 164 feet long and divided into 41 panels. However, rather than names, it is engraved with images derived from more than 2,400 photographs of the war. The wall forms one side of a wedge; the other side is a walkway and a curb engraved with the names of the 22 nations that participated in the war under the United Nations banner.
Between these two borders stand 19 stainless steel statues—the figures mentioned earlier. On close inspection, interesting details emerge. Their faces are ethnically diverse. The insignia and weapons represent all four branches of the U.S. military. Their equipment represents a range of duties, from riflemen to radio operators to medics. They represent everyone who served.
While the statues here are meant to universalize the image of the American serviceman, the designers of the monument also wanted to acknowledge the individuals who served. They achieved this by establishing the Korean War Honor Roll. This database of those who served is accessible by a kiosk at the memorial or via the memorial’s website.
The World War II Memorial
The World War II Memorial is located at the east end of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and just west of the Washington Monument. The monument is constructed of white and gray granite, decorated with numerous carvings and bronze sculptural detail. It is strongly Neoclassical in its design, much like the White House, the Capitol, and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.
Ground was broken at last on November 11, 2000—that is, Veterans Day. Some 15,000 viewers, including many veterans, were in attendance, but Roger Durbin—the veteran who had inspired the monument—was not. He had passed away from pancreatic cancer a few months before.
When the completed monument was dedicated on Memorial Day weekend in 2004, the ceremony was attended by 150,000 people. Today, this site is a beloved landmark, visited by approximately 4 million people every year.
The center of the monument is a plaza and low-lying fountain. Along the north and south curves of the plaza are two semicircles of pillars. They number 56 in all, representing 48 states, 7 territories, and the District of Columbia—the United States as it existed at the time.
On the west side of the plaza—toward the Lincoln Memorial—is a low, curved wall decorated with 4,048 golden stars. Each star represents 100 American service members who died in World War II. Since the monument’s construction, the remains of several more service members originally declared missing in action have been discovered; the official count now stands at more than 405,000.
Some 16 million men and women served in America’s armed forces during World War II. As of 2018, fewer than 4 million are still alive. As this generation passes away, the monument will remain in honor of their sacrifices and achievements.