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For many, a visit to WWII Memorial is a pilgrimage

WASHINGTON -- As summer excursions go, visiting the new National World War II Memorial doesn't exactly fall under the heading of fun and frivolity. Yet a trip to this site in the nation's capital will likely prove a memorable, enriching experience for veterans and nonveterans alike.

"For many people this is not just a tourist trip to Washington," said Bob Patrick, a retired Army colonel who helped oversee development of the memorial. "For some, it's a pilgrimage."

Since the memorial's dedication in May (the site opened to the public in April), National Park Service officials report large crowds are coming from across the United States and beyond.

Situated on the National Mall, between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, the 7.4-acre memorial honors some 16 million Americans who served in uniform, more than 400,000 who lost their lives and millions more who sacrificed on the home front.

"I saw it on TV but couldn't get the feel for it unless I was here," said 82-year-old Leo Farrow of Milford, Conn., wearing a red Marine Corps cap. He enlisted at age 19 and served from 1942 until the war's end in 1945.

"This is long overdue; we've lost so many," said Farrow, who noted that two brothers also served, including one who was killed in Germany. The former VFW president gazed appreciatively at the memorial: "It is beautiful."

Designed by architect Friedrich St. Florian after a national design competition, the memorial is a study in quiet grandeur, characterized by granite, bronze and flowing water.

Highlights include the Memorial Plaza, Rainbow Pool and Freedom Wall, all in a parklike setting with elm trees and benches.

At its ceremonial entrance, 24 bronze bas-relief panels depict wartime scenes of Americans at home and abroad. Another 56 granite pillars, 17 feet tall with oak and wheat bronzed wreaths, symbolize national unity, while representing each state, territory and district from that period. The Freedom Wall has a field of 4,000 sculpted gold stars (a symbol of family sacrifice during the war) that honor the deceased.

Framing the memorial's 17th Street entrance are twin 70-foot-tall flagpoles, while the north and south entrances feature 43-foot pavilions. Within them, American eagles perched atop bronze columns hold a suspended victory laurel. The WWII victory medal is inlaid on the floor, surrounded by the words "Victory on Land," "Victory at Sea," "Victory in the Air," and the years "1941-1945."

Finally, there is a restored Rainbow Pool (enlarged and made deeper) at the memorial's center. The waterworks continue with semicircular fountains at the base of the pavilions, plus waterfalls that flank the Freedom Wall.

During a recent visit, several ducks had made themselves at home in the fountains. Flowers and other mementos had been left behind (though the park staff tends to discourage the practice) in remembrance.

Veterans -- many in uniform -- milled about, mixing with families and children. Some visitors snapped photos, others dried tears. Though the atmosphere was subdued, it was far from maudlin -- rather, it was serene.

"When people come here, they have a lot of emotions, lots of questions," said Gilbert Lyons, a National Park ranger from Hyattsville, who is an Army veteran of the Korean War. "Most simply want to see the memorial in their lifetime."

Robert N. Boswell, 81, of Lawrenceville, Ga., made the trip with his wife of 47 years, Doris, en route to her college reunion in upstate New York.

Wearing a cap with an American flag logo, the New York City native spoke of being just 17 when he enlisted, eventually finishing high school in the Army.

"I served five years, 16 months and 19 days," said Boswell, part of a segregated unit that was typical during that time for the estimated 1 million African-Americans who took part in the war.

Despite battling both the enemy and racism, he and his peers maintained a strong sense of duty and patriotism.

"People in this country were not aware of the contributions" of black soldiers, nor the "death and destruction" that military people encountered overseas, noted Boswell.

The memorial honors that sacrifice, he said.

Visiting the site also provided an opportunity for families to honor their own heroes.

Robert Yarborough drove over from Fairfax, Va., with several relatives, ranging in age from his 11-year-old nephew, Benjamin Draucker, to his 85-year-old uncle, a WWII veteran.

"He had some medical issues, so we thought we'd bring him down," said Robert, gesturing to Edward Andrew Yarborough, using a wheelchair because of arthritis. "He was excited. He really wanted to come."

The elder Yarborough was 22 when drafted in 1941.

"We knew what was coming," he recalled of the days leading up to the war. "My buddies and myself used to pick up a Life magazine for 10 cents. We talked about it."

Yarborough survived combat and trauma but noted, "I don't dwell on it."

Instead, he conveyed how happy he was to see the memorial up close. "It's something I have wanted to do for a long time."

As he spoke, a woman came up to him and touched him on the arm. She didn't know the veteran but wanted to offer her gratitude for his service to this nation.

"Thank you," she said, eliciting a broad smile from Yarborough.

For more information

Contact the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corporation at 800-422-8644 or visit www.washington.org. Now through Labor Day, visitors can take part in a tourism campaign, "America Celebrates the Greatest Generation," an array of WWII exhibitions, performances, walking tours, hotel packages and other regional events. Visit www.americasgreatest generation.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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