In 1987, at a fish fry near
Toledo, Ohio, a World War II veteran named Roger Durbin asked
Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) a question about a memorial
dedicated to those who served in the war. The question: Why
wasn't there one?
Seventeen years later, on May
29, 2004, the answer will be formally unveiled on the National
Mall in Washington, D.C., with the dedication of the National
World War II Memorial.
"A fish fry, that's where it
started," Maj. Gen. (Ret.) John Herrling said.
Herrling, who was appointed
secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission by
President Bill Clinton in 1995, has overseen the long effort
to build the memorial.
"Marcy Kaptur went back and
drew up legislation for a World War II memorial, but it took
her six years to get it passed," Herrling said.
Upon taking the job, Herrling
saw two clearly defined tasks: Building the monument and
raising the money to do so.
"I put together a fundraising
team and that team raised more than $190 million,'' he said.
"I don't think a federal agency has ever been asked to raise
that kind of money before. I didn't know from time to time if
we'd finish the design first or the fundraising. As it turned
out, we raised the money before final approval was given for
Herrling asked Sen. Robert Dole
(R-Kansas) to serve as fundraising chairman. Dole, a World War
II veteran, agreed, but only after exacting a promise of a
co-chairFred Smith, a Vietnam veteran who is the founder,
chairman, and CEO of Federal Express.
"The two of them were very
effective in talking to corporate America,'' Herrling said.
Still lacking a nationally
known public spokesman, Herrling contacted Walter Cronkite and
then David Brinkley, neither of whom could take on the job
because of previous commitments.
Herrling then wrote to Tom
Hanks, asking if he would be interested. In 1997, Steven
Spielberg had written to Herrling's commission asking
permission to film in the Normandy American Cemetery while
working on the movie Saving Private Ryan. Hanks wrote
back and enthusiastically acceded to Herrling's request. The
fundraising effort then went into high gear.
Herrling said the serendipitous
confluence of a bookTom Brokaw's The Greatest
Generation and a movieSaving Private Ryanbrought
World War II to a new generation.
"The book and movie played a
big role,'' he said. Saving Private Ryan focused a new
generation on World War II. Then Tom Brokaw's book came out
and all of a sudden children and grandchildren of veterans
started asking the older generation about the war. There was a
whole lot of interest in the subject and the fundraising
really started to roll.''
The memorial honors the 16
million American men and women who served during World War II,
the more than 400,000 who died, the hundreds of thousands who
were wounded, and the millions who supported the war effort at
"When World War II ended, it
was the most horrific war in human history,'' Herrling said.
"When the men and women in the
armed forces came home, they were very much appreciated by the
American public. These guys came back, had their parties and
celebrations, and decided it was time to get on with their
lives. There was no great emphasis or need to build a World
War II memorial then. It never got a
lot of attention because of that.''
The eleven years of hearings
held on the memorial often were marked by vocal opposition to
building it on the National Mall. Spearheaded by the National
Coalition to Save Our Mall, opponents argued not against a
memorial in principle but against the site eventually
chosenthe Rainbow Pool, between the Washington Monument and
Lincoln Memorial in the center line of the Mall.
In 2000, after 30 public
hearings and many approvals required in the memorial process
were granted to the Battle Monuments Commission, the Coalition
to Save Our Mall took its case to federal court. Failing
there, it went to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and after losing
there, attempted to have the case put on the Supreme Court
docket. The high court refused to hear it.
"There were people who didn't
want the memorial between the two great icons of American
history--Washington and Lincoln,'' Herrling said. "They would
have been very happy if it had been at another site off the
center line of the Mall.''
With the formal dedication set
for Memorial Day weekend, a "soft'' opening took place on the
day after Easter.
"As people walk down the Mall,
they'll be able to come in and visit the memorial,'' Herrling
The official dedication will
include a World War II-themed reunion exhibition on the Mall
staged by the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife
and Cultural Heritage, a service at the Washington National
Cathedral, and an entertainment salute to World War II
veterans from military performing units.