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Toward a World War I memorial

Advocates hope that renovations underway on the D.C. War Memorial will build momentum for transforming it into the first national monument honoring Americans who died in the World War that is largely forgotten.

November 28, 2010|By Jordan Steffen, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The U.S. National World War II Memorial, with 56 stately columns, two arches and a water fountain, was completed on the National Mall here six years ago at a cost of $182 million.

Just over a mile away, long covered in algae and hidden in an overgrown grove, lies the humble District of Columbia War Memorial, which honors the 26,000 Washington residents who fought in World War I. The names of 499 Washingtonians who died in the great conflict are inscribed around its base.

But nowhere in this city of monuments is a shrine honoring all of the 116,516 Americans who died in battle or from other causes in what was once known as the War to End All Wars.

Restorations of the D.C. memorial began in October. But for many, they represent only the first step in a long battle to rededicate the site as the first national World War I memorial.

The most challenging hurdle in renaming the D.C. memorial — or any tribute — as a national World War I memorial is changing the mindset of the American public, according to Peter Kuznick, a history professor at American University in Washington and director of its Nuclear Studies Institute. Few people know the history of World War I, and it is often viewed as less heroic than later wars, he says.

"It's one of those black holes in American historical memory, in part because it was such a negative experience both at the time and even more so in hindsight," Kuznick said. "It's a hard war to immortalize positively."

From the beginning, World War I was a war that people wanted to forget. World War II, in contrast, is considered a noble war in which the U.S. fought against fascism, imperialism and racism, Kuznick said. Most people do not know why the U.S. entered World War I.

"World War I just does not have the same resonance in the national consciousness that the later wars do," said Edwin Fountain, co-director of the World War I Memorial Foundation, which advocates for rededicating the D.C. memorial.

Frank Buckles is the last known living U.S. World War I veteran. The 109-year-old has joined forces with the foundation and emerged as the lead spokesman for creating a national monument, Fountain said.

"The Buckles family is thrilled at the restoration, but at the end of the day it is still just a memorial for D.C. veterans," family representative David DeJonge said.

Renovations at the D.C. memorial will cost $2.3 million, according to Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service, which is overseeing the project. It is using funds from the U.S. Recovery Act, part of a $56.6-million grant awarded to the park service.

Located in a grove south of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, the D.C. monument has a classic circular dome supported by 12 Doric columns. Crews are removing the algae covering the memorial's white marble and installing a new drainage system, Line said. Lighting will be installed, signs about the memorial will be placed around the National Mall, and the landscaping surrounding the monument will be returned to its original design.

Buckles and the foundation are working with members of Congress to rededicate the site as a national memorial, but progress is slow, Fountain said.

"It doesn't look like anything is going to happen before the end of this Congress," Fountain said. "Meanwhile, Mr. Buckles is not getting any younger."

xcxjsteffen@tribune.com

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