How the World War II Memorial Came to Be

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

(Image credit: Aude)

The National World War II Memorial started with a question, and proceeded with a little help from Hollywood.


World War II veterans -the people we now call the “Greatest Generation”- are not known for tooting their own horns. They went to war because it was their duty; then they came home and brought the United States to a new level of prosperity. They never really asked for applause, let alone for a national tribute to their service.

“They’re the most unselfish generation America has ever known,” Ohio representative Marcy Kaptur told the Washington Times in 2004. “That’s why there was no World War II memorial before; because they never asked for it themselves.” Instead, Kaptur asked for them. And when she was turned down, she asked again. And again.

Kaptur’s interest in a memorial began when she met a World War II vet named Roger Durban in 1986, after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had been given a green light. Durban pointed out to the congresswoman that there was no memorial for all of those who served and died in World War II. The Iwo Jima statue was a fine tribute to the Marines, he said, but it left out the other branches of the armed forces. Kaptur did a little research and discovered Durban was right, and she began asking questions.

From 1987 to 1993, Kaptur kept asking, and finally, just a few days before Memorial Day in 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a law authorizing the construction of a national World War II memorial.


Once the question of whether there would be a memorial was answered, the next question was how to pay for it. The plan was to cover the costs with private donations.

(Image credit: MBisanz)

By 1995 about $7 million had been raised, and by 1997 the total was up to about $10 million -not bad, but nowhere near the estimated $182 million it would eventually take to build the memorial. To enhance the fundraising profile, former senator Bob Dole, himself a World War II vet, was named the national chairman of the campaign and a scheme was put in place to have each state donate one dollar on behalf of every one of its residents who served in the war. Ohio alone pledged $500,000 toward the construction (the state sent an estimated 893,000 Buckeyes to fight in the war), and Pennsylvania gave more than $2 million. In the end, all 50 states and Puerto Rico contributed to the project, and they were joined by dozens of veteran’s groups, corporate donors, organizations, schools, and individuals.

A site for the memorial was chosen in 1995. Friederich St. Floridan, an architect from Providence, Rhode Island, won a national design competition that drew 400 submissions. Progress was slow and steady, but by 1998, five years after the memorial project had received approval, the funding still wasn’t approaching the totals necessary for work to start.

Then, like a scene from a Hollywood movie -complete with a A-list star- something utterly unexpected, and utterly wonderful, rallied the troops.


In 1998, five years into the fundraising program, Tom Hanks starred in the World War II film Saving Private Ryan. The fact that the film, directed by Steven Spielberg, was a big success didn’t surprise anyone. The fact that Hanks won a People’s Choice Award for his role probably didn’t surprise anyone, either. But what Hanks did at the January 1999 awards ceremony left everyone floored -especially those involved with the memorial. The two-time Oscar winner used his award acceptance speech to call attention to the fundraising campaign for a World War II memorial and he even read the toll-free number for donations on air.

(YouTube link)

Calls came flooding in: more than 19,000 on the night of the awards show and another 11,000 the next day. And with the calls came the money. Hanks then volunteered his time to do public service ads for radio, television, and print. By June 2000, the toll-free hotline had received more than 230,000 calls, and by the time the memorial was finished in 2004, a total of $197 million had been raised -enough to pay for the construction and create a fund for the monument’s maintenance and upkeep.


Unlike the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial, both of which were plagued by controversy over their unconventional designs, the World War II Memorial design process flowed fairly smoothly. Friederich St. Florian, a longtime professor at the Rhodes School of Design, created a stately, classically-influenced monument of granite pillars encircling an existing water feature known as the Rainbow Pool. Each of the 56 pillars is dedicated to the U.S. states, territories, and the District of Columbia, whose native sons and daughters fought in the war. Bas-relief sculptures lining the entrance to the memorial depict scenes from the war at home and abroad. On the far side of the monument is the Freedom Wall, a tribute to the more than 400,000 Americans who died int he war. It is covered with 4,048 gold stars, each meant to represent 100 Americans who died in the war.

Fittingly, the official groundbreaking for construction was on Veterans Day, November 11, 2000. The project was completed in 2004 and the dedication took place on Memorial Day weekend of that year. Yet by April 2004, the National Park Service decided that the vets had waited for this tribute long enough, so it took down the construction fences and let them in to see it nearly a month before the official opening. Thousands of veterans and civilians visited the memorial before its dedication. Sadly, one who didn’t live to witness the memorial’s completion was a veteran of the 10th Armored Devision: Roger Durban, the man whose question had started it all. Durban had died in February 2000, knowing that the monument he championed would be built -an honor the Greatest Generation rarely asked for, but so richly deserved.

(YouTube link)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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