I went to Washington, D.C., last weekend to cover the Kennedy Center Honors, vaguely intending to visit the World War II Memorial on Pearl Harbor Day. When the temperature dropped Sunday morning, so did my resolve. But the grudging sun came out, and I walked along the Potomac River from Foggy Bottom to the National Mall. I arrived at almost the exact moment (12:55 p.m. EST) Japanese bombers had attacked the Hawaiian base 73 years before.
A U.S. flag and black-and-white POW-MIA banner fluttered at half-mast in the gentle wind. A dozen survivors of the attack, flown in from Austin, Texas, stood or sat gravely to the side of the speech makers. A military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” with stately dignity – no one sang – and a minister spoke “a prayer for generational peace.” Restrained applause followed all speeches.
Yet the mood remained upbeat, a chance to ponder terrible decisions that should never be forgotten but can now be forgiven. People smiled, took pictures, spoke cheerfully to strangers. Asian faces among the crowd wore the same respectful attentiveness as everyone else’s.
Around us stood one of the most simple and handsome American memorials, built partly by Charlotte-based company J.A. Jones. (Tompkins Builders of Washington, a Jones subsidiary, constructed the monument with Grunley-Walsh Construction of Maryland.)
The most striking element, a series of vertical pillars made of Kershaw granite from South Carolina and decorated with wreaths – wheat for agriculture, oak for industry – surround the Rainbow Pool, which is held in by coping stone from Mount Airy and has fountains at each end, with smaller jets of water arcing around the rim. (You’ll get a full description at nps.gov/wwii.)
The place has a Roman feel to it, as perhaps a memorial for fallen soldiers should. And I realized that it brings tears to the eyes because it so beautifully combines visual elements and ideas.
A simple wall plaque can convey information by itself.
A sculpture without any explanation can inspire a deep response, as figures depicting concentration-camp victims in Paris’ Pere-Lachaise cemetery do so powerfully.
But this memorial has symbolism: 4,048 gold stars each represent 100 American military deaths. It has humor: Two famous “Kilroys” are hidden in the memorial, depicting the humorous “Kilroy was here” drawing of a big-nosed mug peering over a wall. It balances strength in the stones with lightness in the water and air. (You can look through the open columns toward the Washington Monument or Abraham Lincoln, sitting pensively on his marble chair.)
No matter how cold the day here, warm emotions flood the heart. That’s what a well-designed blend of art and history ought to do.