Sunday, May 23, 2004

WWII Memorial draws families

Dedication a week off, but tribute to veterans already popular

WASHINGTON — Shirley McKinney always wanted to know more about the father she lost in World War II than other members of her family could bear to discuss.

"I think they were part of this generation that was going through a wall of silence. You didn’t talk about it because you would make your mother cry or you would make your grandparents cry," said McKinney, who was 8 when her father was killed by German mortar fire. "They grieved. They had this closure. ... I wasn’t old enough to know what was going on."

McKinney’s search for more information about her father, Capt. Earl L. Jackson, took a turn for the better about 14 years ago, when she came across a newspaper article that mentioned the Railsplitters, the nickname for the 84th Infantry Division that fought the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest deep in the winter of 1944-45.

Capt. Jackson died just as the company he led crossed the Roer River from Belgium into Germany.

McKinney, who lives in Little Rock, knew enough about her dad to know he was a Railsplitter. From there, she found and wrote to many members of his company.

Most of those who wrote back had detailed memories of her father, but almost all have since died. Since they can’t attend the Memorial Day weekend’s dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington, McKinney plans to be there for them, as well as for her father.

She will meet with more than 200 others who lost a parent during World War II, and they will get to sit with the tens of thousands of World War II veterans attending Saturday’s dedication. For her, the ceremony will be the tribute that she feels she missed out on back in the spring of 1945.

"This is going to be my honoring my dad and his division and the rest of the people who served to pay for our freedom," said McKinney.

The weekend of the dedication promises to be an inspiring one — and a trying one, as more than 200,000 people a day are expected to visit the National Mall for what is being described as a national World War II reunion.

Besides the dedication itself — for which 117,000 tickets were gobbled up in a few weeks — there will be concerts at MCI Center, a church service at the National Cathedral and a movie festival at the National Archives, which will also display the original German military surrender signed at Rheims, France, on May 7, 1945.


One of the highlights for McKinney will be a candlelight ceremony in front of the memorial’s Freedom Wall. The wall is studded with 4,000 gold stars, each one symbolizing the death of 100 soldiers, airmen and other troops who lost their lives during the war. Many older Americans will remember that families during the war placed a gold star in their windows to signify the loss of a loved one.

The memorial cost about $174 million, funded by private donations.

Former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who pushed for the memorial, used to joke that the only World War II veteran who would be still alive when it was finally constructed would be Strom Thurmond, the former senator from South Carolina. But Thurmond died in December. More than 1,000 veterans of the war die every day.

About 4 million veterans, or about a quarter of those who served during World War II, are still alive. The latest census showed that about 60,000 veterans of the war live in Arkansas, but that count was taken four years ago.

The memorial, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, was opened a month before the dedication so that more veterans might have a chance to see it. On a cloudy, cool Thursday afternoon last week, hundreds of visitors, including dozens of World War II vets, milled around the 7.4-acre plaza.

The highlights of the memorial are the 43-foot granite arches at the north and south ends of the plaza. One arch represents the Pacific front, the other the Atlantic front. Fifty-six pillars, one for each state and territory, encircle the plaza and connect the two arches. A reflecting pool with numerous fountains also separates the arches.

The memorial was designed not to obstruct the grand vista between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Both are easily visible from the World War II memorial.

The pillar honoring Arkansas is two pillars to the right of the Pacific arch. Coincidentally, or perhaps appropriately, the wall beneath the Arkansas pillar contains a quotation from Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was born in Little Rock in 1880.


"Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won. The skies no longer rain death — The seas bear only commerce — Men everywhere walk upright. The entire world is quietly at peace," reads the inscription.
There are numerous inscriptions throughout the site, as well as bronze sculptures depicting events during the war, such as the invasion of Normandy.

Reaction from a sampling of veterans was mostly positive. Terry Shima, who served in Italy, in the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, said the memorial evoked memories of a trip he took to Gettysburg.

"One memorial symbolized the preservation of the Union," Shima said. "This one symbolizes the preservation of Western democracy."

Joseph Marron of New York complained that he had become too blind to enjoy the view. He said the memorial was built about 59 years too late. "It should have been done when we could all enjoy it," he said.

Robert Wallace of Little Rock, who fought on D-Day and lost his right leg after stepping on a mine, contributed to the memorial’s construction. He will take his two daughters and a stepson to the memorial next weekend.

"I think of this as my last hurrah," said Wallace, 81. "I’m going up to see that and see the Arlington Cemetery, where I plan to be buried. I’ve often wanted to go to Arlington and just take a look at it, and this will give me a chance."

Wallace, a good-humored man, was a corporal — "the same rank as Hitler."

Wallace doesn’t expect to see any of his former comrades. He believes they are about all gone now. While the weekend will have its solemn moments, his No. 1 goal is to have fun.

"I survived, and I always felt lucky that I did survive," he said.

Congratulations, Shirley!

in memory of CPT Earl L. Jackson, KIA 23 Feb 45 at Korrenzig, Germany