This Veterans’ Day, I began thinking back to a day in June of 2000 when I was competing in the National History Day competition as a sixth grader. My parents and I took the Metro from the University of Maryland into D.C. As a ten year old, I was already familiar with our nation’s capital. My mother, a history teacher, took her students to Washington, D.C. every summer, and since I was five, I had traveled with them. On this day, we decided to do something different from what we normally did on those tours. We walked leisurely through West Potomac Park filled with beautiful shade trees which provided a great contrast from the busy Independence Avenue running along side it. Little did I know that I would come upon a site that would plant a seed in my mind that to this day almost haunts me. On this chance walk, we discovered the District of Columbia’s War Memorial, dedicated to the memory of World War I veterans and those who lost their lives.
Though it was in a state of disrepair, the memorial intrigued me. It was small and looked like a bandstand that I might see in a park on an Andy Griffith show or something. I learned that it was designed by a Washington architect, Frederick H. Brooke and two associate architects, Horace W. Peaslee and Nathan C. Wyeth. The structure was a 47-foot tall circular domed peristyle Doric temple. The dome was supported by twelve 22-foot tall fluted marble columns. Reading about it later, I learned that the four-foot high marble base or platform sits on a foundation of concrete. The platform measures only 43 feet 5 inches in diameter. I also learned that it was intended to be exactly what I thought it had looked like, a bandstand.
It was authorized by an act of Congress on June 7, 1924. The project was funded by contributions from organizations and individual citizens of the District of Columbia. Actual construction of the memorial did not begin for seven more years, the spring of 1931. When it was dedicated on Armistice Day later that fall by President Herbert Hoover, it was the first war memorial to be erected in West Potomac Park, a part of the National Mall. Today, it remains the only local District memorial on the National Mall.
As I walked around it, I learned much about this marble structure. One of the things that impressed me was that a list of the 26,000 Washingtonians who served in World War I is preserved in the cornerstone of the memorial. I also was moved by the 499 names of citizens of the District of Columbia who lost their lives in the Great War. I remember the medallions representing the branches of the armed forces.
I began to wonder why there was no national memorial to the men who served and those who died in World War I. I guess I was not alone. In 2008, as I watched the news, I learned that Frank Buckles was the last surviving U.S. veteran of World War I. He was born in 1901 and enlisted in the military in 1917. Mr. Buckles served his country driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in Europe. When the war ended, Mr. Buckles returned home only to find himself again enlisting when our nation was drawn into World War II. Listening to that news report, I learned that Mr. Buckles and I had something in common. We both felt it was a dark shadow cast on our nation that no national structure had been erected to memorialize the veterans and honored dead of World War I.
Representative Ted Poe of Texas, along with the support of Mr. Buckles, proposed a bill in Congress to expand the District of Columbia’s memorial and designate it as the national memorial to World War I. In July of 2010, $3.6 million of federal stimulus package money funded the restoration work on the memorial. Work began in October that fall. During its restoration, the memorial’s stone was cleaned and damage fixed. The landscape was cleaned up and fieldstone walkways were restored.
On November 10, 2011, the memorial reopened to the public just in time for the 11-11-11 remembrance of Armistice Day. The structure and grounds upkeep will now be administered by the National Park Service, specifically the National Mall and Memorial Parks unit.
Today, there is controversy brewing over whether it should become the National Memorial. Many District residents feel that a move to make it the national memorial will negate the purpose and intent of those who planned and funded the original project.
I have returned to D.C. many time since that day and even spent part of a summer there interning for Arkansas Congressman Mike Ross. I look forward to returning to visit this “bandstand” beauty in a day of much greater grandeur, Whether it is a national memorial or not, I will pay my respects to the men of World War I. My step- great- grandfather, Owen Saunders, a munitions expert, was one of those who served in The Great War. If this is not made into a national memorial, I encourage Congress to find a location on the mall and to begin an effort to construct a proper tribute to these men.