MAXWELL:  Your gifts could build WWII memorial

11/10/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Because tomorrow is Veterans Day, I am plugging one of my pet subjects: the need for a World War II memorial honoring Americans who fought in the century’s most dangerous war.

A few years ago after visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., I decided to check out the other sites honoring our veterans of the armed forces. Leaving the Korean War Veterans Memorial, I asked park service staffers to point me to the memorial for World War II veterans.

“There isn’t one,” a young woman said. Like millions of other Americans, I was shocked that we had nary a stone in the nation’s capital honoring World War II vets.

Why? Here are some of the best answers I have encountered over the years.

Ducky Wilkinson, a retired veteran who was a Marine machine gunner in the South Pacific, told Knight-Ridder’s Michael Parker: “Nobody ever brought it up. We just got the job done and walked away from it.”

A similar explanation came from Ira Simpson, president of the Greater Dallas Veterans Council and a B-24 navigator who was shot down over Nazi-occupied Holland and languished for three months of the war in a German prison camp: “Most of us came home, went to school, got involved with our families, making a living and this type of thing, and didn’t think too much about it. Later on, as we got near retirement age, we started getting involved with different veterans organizations, and people realized there was not a big national memorial to World War II people.”

But after more than 50 years after World War II ended, the time has come to erect a memorial commemorating our GIs. I am not being jingoistic. Nor am I worshiping militarism. I am simply stating that all Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who fought or died and to their families who sacrificed in their absence.

Finally, after years of lobbying and shaming, Congress approved the memorial, and President Clinton led a ceremony at the proposed site on the National Mall. Washington, of course, would not pay for the monument, which must be financed by the private sector. Proponents say the final tab for the structure will be roughly $100-million, but construction cannot commence until the full amount has been raised. To date, nearly $65-million has been raised.

Fundraising took off after Bob Dole became national chairman of the campaign in 1997, and after actor Tom Hanks, of Saving Private Ryan fame, used his nationally televised People’s Choice Award acceptance speech to support the memorial. Major companies, such as Boeing, Chrysler, Coca-Cola, Citicorp and Federal Express, have donated huge sums or are matching employee contributions. And the Veterans of Foreign Wars has promised $7.5-million.

The most special gift, however, is the money that schoolchildren have raised.

Organizers hope to break ground in early 2000 and have the monument completed by 2002. The biggest enemy now is time. According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, of the 16-million World War II vets, only 6.3-million are alive. Nearly 1,000 die each day.

Ed Williamson, who was an Army truck driver in the Battle of the Bulge, said: “If they don’t build the thing soon, I won’t get a chance to see it. I fade a little bit every day. Wouldn’t it be nice to go to Washington and see something that was put up in your honor?”

The essence of the structure is best captured by F. Haydn Williams of the National Battle Monuments Commission: “When built, the World War II memorial will indeed be a place for commemoration and commitment. It will also be a place for joyful celebration of the American spirit _ a special moment in our national history which should not be forgotten _ a time when America saved the world, a time which forever changed the face of American life and the direction of world history.”

Williams is right to emphasize the celebratory nature of the proposed monument. Because World War II, unlike Vietnam, was a cause that all Americans supported, the memorial will not produce the dolorous emotions like those evoked by the Vietnam Memorial.

As a veteran, I would like to see each American citizen donate at least $1 to the effort for its construction and its upkeep. I want to see more companies donate money or match employee gifts. More information is available at Donations may be made on the Internet or by calling (800) 639-4WW2 or by mail to: World War II Memorial Fund, American Battle Monuments Commission, P.O. Box 96766, Washington, D.C. 20090-6766.