The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

May/June 2004

A Long Time Coming

Photo: Mokie Porter


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 the design.''

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-chairFred 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 bookTom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation and a movieSaving Private Ryanbrought 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 home.

"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 chosenthe 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 said.

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.


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