Washington's forgotten memorial

The Doric-style marble temple is surrounded by dense groves of hardwood trees that were planted into West Potomac Park's marshy soil nearly 80 years ago. Curious visitors only occasionally drift off the main pathway that leads from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol - the two-mile stretch of Washington known as the National Mall - and make their way to the unheralded District of Columbia War Memorial. They try to locate it, among America's most beloved memorials and monuments, on their National Park Service maps.

Strolling from the World War II Memorial Plaza toward the great Lincoln statue, they can find the bone-white monument tucked behind a set of restrooms, beyond a canopy of low branches. Dead grass rises through the gaps of its walkway stones, and the marble is cracked and veined with age and water damage.

The D.C. memorial seems out of context with the rest of the mall. Although on federal property, it is specifically dedicated to 499 local Washingtonians who lost their lives fighting in what then was known as the Great War. Other sites along the mall, such as the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Wall and the new World War II Memorial Plaza, are more national in scope.

The deteriorating D.C. memorial is the mall's only nod to World War I. The last living U.S. veteran of that war, 107-year-old Legionnaire Frank Buckles, recently visited it, and took note of its condition. He and a friend, Michigan photographer David DeJonge, are pushing for the memorial's restoration and an expansion that may include statues of American doughboys positioned in the surrounding woods, as if on patrol.

The D.C. memorial was more than a local attraction in its day. Completed in the depths of the Depression, after Congress authorized construction in 1924 and $200,000 in local funds were raised, it would become the first such monument to include the names of blacks and women among those of white male troops.

The memorial was designed and built to comfortably seat the Marine Band on Armistice Day 1931, when it was dedicated by President Herbert Hoover. Thousands attended. Among the speakers was Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing. John Philip Sousa, at age 77, wore his Navy uniform as he led the Marine Band in "The Stars and Stripes Forever" during the ceremony, which was broadcast nationally on the radio.

The memorial was used for concerts and ceremonies for years after its dedication. In more recent times, it has fallen into such disrepair that the D.C. Preservation League has listed it among the "Most Endangered Places" in the district. The American Legion passed a national resolution last summer calling upon the National Park Service to elevate the memorial on its priority list, to repair and maintain it.

To allow its further decay is no way to bid farewell to this generation of veterans, now reduced to one, that founded The American Legion on the values of never forgetting freedom's costs. They are the values we honor on Memorial Day, and they are etched into the marble of a Doric-style temple in West Potomac Park.

AN INDEX OF WAR MEMORIALS: The American Legion, the Alliance Defense Fund and the Liberty Legal Institute have teamed up to build a database of war and veterans memorials across the nation. In many places, military and veterans memorials have come under attack by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union that seek to remove religious references from public monuments and memorials, many of which are dedicated to military service and sacrifice. American Legion posts are asked to submit information and photos about war and veterans memorials in their communities.
(800) TELL-ADF

AMERICAN-MADE FLAGS: American-made U.S. Flags for Memorial Day are available from American Legion Emblem Sales.
(888) 453-4466

CHILD WELFARE FOUNDATION: The Child Welfare Foundation, administered by The American Legion, distributes more than $500,000 in grants a year. The CWF recently launched a new Web site to assist donors and grant seekers alike.