A wreath-laying tribute was held at Pershing Park in Washington, D.C, to honor the 4.7 million Americans who served in World War I on Nov. 8, 2018. Photo by Eric Kruszewski/The American Legion

Wreath tribute opens weekend of WWI commemorative programs

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At a wreath-laying tribute to the 4.7 million Americans who served in World War I, officials said it is long past time their sacrifice is honored with a memorial in the nation's capital.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and retired Army Col. Jennifer Pritzker, founder of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library, joined the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission and the public at Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 8 for the first of several programs commemorating the war's end and previewing the long-awaited memorial.

Wilkie spoke of his great-grandfather, Capt. A.D. Somerville, who in 1917 left a small-town law practice and part-time teaching job at the University of Mississippi School of Law to join the Army's 82nd "All-American" Division at Camp Gordon, Ga. Across the cantonment was a scratch farmer from Tennessee named Alvin York, who went on to become the country's greatest civilian soldier. Elsewhere in Georgia was his wife's grandfather, who by age 19 would fight in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. All were "ordinary Americans called upon to do extraordinary things," helping the United States emerge on the world stage, he said.

"Let this monument remind us of that long-ago generation ... their courage, their sacrifice, and their common bond as citizens of the greatest republic in history," Wilkie said.

The morning ceremony kicked off a weekend of commemorative events at the park, including tributes to women and minority groups who served in World War I. Visitors can also stop by a "First Look" pavilion, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Monday, to see a maquette and multimedia presentation of the new national memorial.

Terry Hamby, chairman of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission and a Vietnam War veteran, welcomed guests.

"I speak for my grandfather, who lost his hearing in World War I, and for my great-uncle, who was killed in action at St. Mihiel, and millions of families of World War I veterans," said Hamby, a member of American Legion Nashville Post 5.

"The path to create a memorial in the capital to honor those who served in the Great War has taken many twists and turns in the past 50 years, and we were thrilled in 2015 when Congress designated Pershing Park as the site of the World War I memorial and directed the commission to build it .... Our doughboys were the first to deploy to a country most had never visited and fight in a war they didn't start, and were willing to die for peace and liberty for people they'd never met.

"This is our opportunity to correct a long-overdue debt. We need your help and America's help to build this memorial."

As the U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own" Brass Quintet played, representatives from each state and territory placed wreaths in memory of those who served.

Ely Ross, director of the Washington, D.C., Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs and a Marine Corps Iraq War veteran, praised the commission's work, which has included education programs, public outreach and commemorative events across the country.

He noted that of the 27,000 D.C. residents who served in World War I, 499 died, their names etched on the district monument on the National Mall dedicated in 1931.

"World War I was thought to be the war to end all wars," Ross said. "Unfortunately, as we all know, nothing could be further from the truth. Even today, in the midst of the longest war in our nation's history, men and women from the District of Columbia and across the nation continue to step forward and serve our country. It's our responsibility as communities and as a nation to not only care for our veterans when they return home but to make sure we never forget their service and their sacrifice.

"This memorial will finally and properly enshrine the service of our World War I veterans for future generations so they can learn from the legacy of the men and women who served 100 years ago."

Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, said Pershing Park is one of his favorite memorials in the city, but that it is "completely appropriate to transition just a bit from it being a memorial just to General Pershing to being a memorial to the Great War."

Guests also heard about the 100 Cities/100 Memorials program, launched in 2016 by the Pritzker Military Museum and Library and the World War One Commission, with the support of The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Its goal was to help communities across the country restore and preserve local World War I memorials through matching grants of $2,000.

"These memorials provide a permanent connection to the profound impact the war had on local towns and cities," Pritzker said. "In the end, our $200,000 program helped stimulate over $6,200,000 in memorial restorations nationwide."

As founding sponsor of the World War One Centennial Commission and a life member of Union League American Legion Post 758 in Chicago, Pritzker has contributed $5 million to the commemoration of World War I.

Both her grandfathers served in the Great War: Navy Chief Petty Officer Abram Pritzker and Pvt. Oscar Gilbert, 84th Division, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), who served in France in 1918. Her great-uncle, Capt. Louis Pritzker, was an Army doctor. Another great-uncle, Harry Pritzker, was an infantry officer with the 22nd AEF.

"For them, it was their way of solidifying their citizenship," Pritzker said. "Louis Pritzker was an immigrant, born in the old Russian empire. Oscar, Harry and Abram were all born in the United States, but they were the sons of immigrants. This was the case in many families.

"We created a huge army in a very short time. People fail to understand the mobilization for World War I was a little like taking a high school baseball team and saying, 'You're going to play in the World Series next year, and by the way, you've got to create a Major League franchise from the ground up.' And we did it."

John Monahan, The American Legion's representative on the World War One Centennial Commission, is heading up the weekend's armistice centennial activities, including a sacred service at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday.

"It is our hope that we will fittingly and appropriately honor the memory of those who served and sacrificed in the Great War," Monahan said.

"As a Legionnaire, I view this as a singular honor to represent the Legion on the commission, and to be entrusted by the commission itself with the organization of these events over the next few days. The Legion has its roots in the first world war, and it was largely that spirit of the doughboys that was encapsulated in our founding documents. It's an organization I'm extremely proud of."

For more on the World War One Centennial Commission's "First Look" events, click here.

Learn how to support construction of the National World War I Memorial here.