World War One Memorial to honor lives, offer lessons

Remember my forgotten man
You put a rifle in his hand
You sent him far away
You shouted “Hip Hooray”
But look at him today.

Eighty five years after film star Joan Blondell sang these heart wrenching lyrics in the closing number of the musical Golddiggers of 1933 – and almost 100 years after the end of the Great War – the doughboys, sailors and marines who fought and won “the war to end all wars” remain almost forgotten in the sense that there in no national monument to honor their service. But thanks to Public Law 112-272, which was passed by the 112th Congress and signed by President Obama on January 16, 2013, this egregious omission will hopefully soon be amended.  An effort is now in the works to construct a National World War One Memorial in Washington DC.

The United States World War One Centennial Commission was created as part of Public Law 112-272. The Commission is responsible for planning, developing, and executing programs, projects, and activities to commemorate the centennial of World War One. The Commission receives no appropriated funds and the Commissioners serve without pay.

It is entirely a volunteer organization.

The commision was on hand at this years Air Force Association Convention. (Anthony C. Hayes)
The WWI Commission was on hand at this year’s Air Force Association Convention. (Anthony C. Hayes)

“Here’s the deal,” explained Chris Isleib – Director of Public Affairs for the US World War One Centennial Commission. “The idea for a national war memorial is actually a relatively new one. It started with the Vietnam vets who wanted a memorial for the common soldier. With that success, they were followed by the Korean war veterans and then the World War Two veterans. All of those groups wanted something on the National Mall in Washington.

“It was a tough fight for the WWII guys. I think they did 53 different design submissions before they finally got approval. WWI came to the game late and discovered Congress was more interested by that time in preserving the open space on the mall and limiting future building on it. As a result, they passed a law saying the National Mall is a completed project. Of course, the WWI folks were mostly gone by then, so they didn’t have an effective lobbying effort.

“We (the World War One Centennial Commission) were created by Congress in 2013, and one of the things we tried to do was see what the options would be. First, we wanted to see if we could expand the Washington DC city WWI memorial, which was built in 1931, into something befitting a National Monument. That didn’t work out, so Congress authorized us a spot in Pershing Park. Pershing Park is about a block and a half from the Mall, but it’s in a great location. It’s right next door to the White House visitors center so there is great visibility there.

“In May of this year we kicked off an international design competition. The first stage closed in July after getting about 360 submissions. We’ve narrowed those down through a jury process to five finalists and are currently working with those finalist design teams as they further develop their conceptions. These will be reviewed by the various stakeholder groups, including the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Parks Service and the National Capitol Planning Commission. Once that process is complete we’ll announce the winner in mid-late January.”

The idea of placing a national memorial in a space dedicated to honor the man who led the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI sounds like a wholly fitting idea, so we asked Isleib to tell us more about Pershing Park.

Pershing Park in Washington DC. (Wikimedia)
Pershing Park in Washington DC. (Wikimedia)

“Unfortunately, the current design of the park is rather dated and the water feature is in disrepair. I think that’s one of the reasons congress authorized us to revamp it and create a national WWI memorial at the site. People used to go to that park for recreation, and we respect that role, so we’re trying to integrate both the commemorative and recreational aspects in a way that has been successfully done at other locations such as the Navy Memorial which is just down the street.

“Speaking of other locations, let me just add that the War Memorial in Baltimore is really one for the ages. It’s quite remarkable and the people of Baltimore should be proud of that.

“Part of what were doing as a commission is not only to build this memorial, but also to document and preserve other memorials throughout the country. We’re working now with a group to be sure that some of those memorials which are in danger will not be lost while also rasing funds for preservation. So we have an education and preservation commission as well.”

What is the estimated cost for this endeavor?

“In Pershing Park, we’re trying to keep this doable as possible, while creating a site that can be easily maintained by future generations. The figure that has been quoted by our Vice-Chair, Edwin L. Fountain, is something between 25-30 million dollars. That’s probably an accurate target, but people should know that none of that money will come from appropriated tax dollars. All of the money will come from donated funds. That means either corporate or grassroots donorship. So far we’ve been blessed to be able to keep the lights on here. Our founding donor – the Pritzker Military Museum in Chicago – started us off with an incredibly generous donation of 5 million dollars and we are slowly building on that foundation.”

The commission hopes to have the World War One Memorial completed in time for dedication on Veterans Day in 2018.

* * * * *

Perhaps the most visible volunteer at public displays by the centennial commission is David Shuey of Pennsylvania. Shuey is a living historian who portrays General John J. Pershing.

David Shuey as General John J. Pershing. (Susan Shuey)
David Shuey as General John J. Pershing. (Susan Shuey)

Second only in place to George Washington among the military leaders of the United States armies, Pershing (like Washington) holds the elevated rank of six star general.

“I’d done a lot of Civil War portrayals and thought I’d pretty well covered that era through the Sesquicentennial which ended earlier this year, so I started looking into the life of John Pershing. It occurred to me that it’s a little ironic that, every year at this time, we celebrate what used to be known as Armistice Day but don’t have an understanding of what WWI was; what the Armistice meant. Yes, we try to honor all veterans and the sacrifices they made, but the historical significance of this day and what preceded it is lost on many people, and I’m afraid I may have been one of them.

“The more I study it, the more I realize how momentous the events were and how it altered the course of the entire world. Geo-politically everything shifted after the end of The Great War, and so many people shared the belief that we would never ever do that again. Yet, 18 years later we were at the beginning of another, and in many ways, worse conflict that was repeated in some of the very same places. Obviously, we learned nothing, so perhaps on Veterans Day we should take some lessons and gain a bit of retrospection from 97 years ago. Seeing what we might be able to do better while there is time to do so.

“Beyond the obvious sacrifices and contributions made by the people of that era, WWI has never held a place of prominence in Washington, because it is still a war without a national monument. But as you may know, the mission of the WWI Commission includes education. It’s an opportunity to try to enlighten others – especially the young people – as to the context of what happened and why it happened and what lessons we can take so as not to repeat it.”

World War One may be best remembered today – not only for immortal participants such as Pershing, Eddie Rickenbacker, Ernest Hemingway, Baron Manfred von Richthofen and Sergeant Alvin York – but for the horrific use of chemical weapons by both sides on the battlefield. Given that the spectre of chemical weapons has again surfaced in the current conflict in the Middle East, we asked Shuey if that is one of the lessons he would like to see taught?

German soldiers in gas masks advancing through a gas attack during World War One.
German soldiers in gas masks advancing through a gas attack during World War One.

“Absolutely. There are photographs taken from observation aircraft of the smoke trails across the battlefields of WWI, and they are ghostly. When you research this, you learn that soldiers who were afflicted by the gas and survived the war – and many of them did – were in such a weakened state that they were that much more susceptible to the pandemic Spanish flu which swept the world in 1919 and killed millions. By 1921, over 5,000 veterans who reported that they had been gassed were suffering the effects. It was terrible. They would be blinded and it would ruin their lungs so much that they were hampered from normal activity. It was a constant struggle for them to just stay alive. Christy Mathewson, the great baseball player of the early years of the game, served in a chemical unit during the war and was exposed to gas. He died just a few years later from complications of that exposure.

“The gassing was so devastating that all of the powers who signed the peace treaty agreed that they would never use chemical weapons again. Unfortunately, that was then and power in this world has shifted. Parties who did not sign on to that agreement – and in some cases nations which didn’t even exist at the time – are now poised to use chemical weapons. Look at Syria, where Assad has gassed his own people. What repercussions has he faced for that act? We made threats against that regime but have never acted upon them. Now we stand and wait for him and others to use those weapons again. The lesson from WWI is that if those kind of weapons, and I’ll include nuclear weapons here, could be used back and forth, that should be a deterrent to never use them again. But if a nation can use them without consequences, they will; and I’m afraid that has been demonstrated now in Syria.

“Hopefully, beyond honoring those who served and died, this monument will be an instrument of enlightenment that will again spur people to learn the how and why of the war and strive to ensure it never happens again. That’s what I try to do with my portrayal of Pershing. When people see me, they say, ‘Oh, right. General Pershing from World War One. Tell me about him and about the war.’

“Let’s hope those lessons – and the men who fought over there – will not be forgotten.”