Panoramic View of WWII Memorial, Washington, DC 2008, photo by Joe Hight
Less than 650,000 veterans of World War II are still alive today. Most of these veterans don't feel they are heroes. They were just doing what had to be done. The late Donald M. Murray, writer, long time Boston Globe columnist and WWII veteran, wrote about marching with the 82nd Airborne in a World War II Victory Parade down Fifth Avenue in New York. He said, "I hated every long minute of the celebration because what men and women do and survive in combat has nothing to do with statues and fountains and plaques and flags. It has everything to do with men and women, civilian and military, being killed, maimed, or left mentally ill because war became the only way to resolve human differences."
Over sixteen million Americans served in the armed services in WWII; 400,000 of them were killed. The WWII memorial in Washington, DC features a five-foot high "freedom wall" embedded with 4000 gold stars in memory of those who gave their lives.
On the day the war ended in August 1945, I remember pulling my homemade soapbox wagon down the middle of the street in celebration -a small American flag stuck on top. I was five years old and reacting to the joy of my mom, my aunts, and the lady next door who baked cookies. They were joyful because husbands, sons, and brothers would be coming home, at least those who were lucky enough to have survived. Many would arrive home missing an arm or a leg or worse. And others were still shell shocked from having seen buddies blown up before their eyes. Others were trying to deal with the guilt of firing mortars, dropping bombs, and launching torpedoes that condemned hundreds of human beings to death and destruction.
While it was mostly men who bore the brunt of fighting in WWII, we must not forget the contribution of women to the effort. Of course, many women filled jobs in war industry left vacant my men who went to war, but women also served in the military. More than 50,000 women served as army nurses in the war. They served under enemy fire in field and evacuation hospitals, on hospital trains, hospital ships and in general hospitals overseas as well as in the United States, frequently serving near the front lines, suffering casualties.
I need to differ with Murray, who was my professor and writing mentor at the University of New Hampshire. I think we need memorials and even parades honoring our veterans, not because we glorify war, but to remind us of the cost in human lives of all wars.
The National Museum of the Marine Corps just outside of Washington, DC off of Interstate 95 on Jefferson Davis Highway in Triangle, VA celebrates the heroic role of the United States Marines in our wars. O’Neil Martin of Cranston, RI, a Marine who fought in the Pacific during World War II, never talked much about his experience. Several years ago, I asked him what it was like. Martin joined the Marines in 1942 and served with the 1st Marine Division, 9th Defense Battalion—dubbed the Fighting 9th. He trained at Parris Island, SC, went to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then joined the fight for Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. In that battle, the Marines took an airfield and established a beachhead six miles wide and three miles deep. It was fierce, hand-to-hand combat in mosquito-infested tropical jungles marked by disease—diarrhea, malaria, dysentery, skin fungus.
Photo courtesy of Flikr
The Marine Corps Museum records the fight for Guadalcanal in pictures, weapons exhibits, maps and text. The Japanese launched waves of counterattacks against the Marines. Each dawn allied airmen—a hodgepodge of Marine, Army, Navy and allied aircraft—scrambled to take on Japanese Zero fighter planes in their inferior Grumman F4F Wildcats. The allies won most of these battles using team tactics. By the winter of 1943, after four months of fierce fighting on air, land and sea, the Allies secured the island.
A Marine pamphlet on the Guadalcanal campaign, available in the museum gift shop, gives the total cost of the fight to the American ground combat forces as 1,598 officers and men killed (1,152 of them Marines) and 4,709 wounded (2,799 of these were Marines). The Japanese lost close to 25,000 men on Guadalcanal.
A nice tribute to the Marines and to O'Neil Martin would be to begin Memorial Day with a morning visit to the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, Virginia and make an afternoon visit to the Marine Corps Museum. In between those visits think about a visit to Arlington National Cemetery where so many of America's honored war dead are laid to rest.
Korean War Memorial at night, Washington, DC
You may need more than one day to cover it all, but how can anyone skip a visit to the Korean War Memorial in Washington, DC. It is most haunting, especially when viewed in at night under the lights. There are more than 7,800 American soldiers still unaccounted for from the Korean War as of June 2016. There has never been a peace treaty, so technically, the Korean War (1950-1953) has never ended. More than 36,000 Americans died in that war, and more than 103,000 were wounded in action.
The Vietnam War Memorial is a short walk from the Korean War Memorial. Inscribed on the black granite walls of the Vietnam memorial are the names of more than 58,000 men and women who gave their lives or remain missing. One cannot help to be humbled, thoughtful and pious as one starts the downward walk along the front of the wall with the names of Americans who died in that war.
There is a humble Washington, DC WWI memorial. It is located not far from the majestic WWII memorial. The WWI memorial was dedicated on November 11, 1931, with 499 names of D.C. citizens who lost their lives in the war inscribed on the base. The cornerstone of the memorial lists 26,000 D.C. residents who served in WWI.
There is no American civil war monument in Washington, DC, though there are many statues of civil war figures scattered all over the city. And one does not really need a memorial to the civil war when we have The Lincoln Memorial to honor the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who saved the union and whose actions led to the end of slavery in these United States. The Civil War was the most horrendous American war of all in terms of the number of Americans killed, an estimated 640,000 to 700,000 dead.
If you want more of the civil war visit Gettysburg, a 90 mile drive from Washington, DC.
Finally,let's not forget America's longest war, the war in Afghanistan,which began in 2001 and is still going on today.
On women serving in WWII
American Civil War deaths
Korean War facts
The length of America's wars