THE WORLD WAR II MONUMENT COMMITTEE
I have been puzzled for the past two years — not about life in general but merely about why I have been serving on a special committee. And further, I have wondered why the other members are there, as well.
Since shortly after the 50th anniversary of D-Day (of World War II fame) I have attended the regular meetings of "The World War II Monument Committee". This is a volunteer committee, started by a few dedicated veterans of World War II, with the stated mission of erecting a monument to honor the memory of those Iowans who "labored, fought and died for freedom" during the years of U.S. involvement in the war, 1941-1945.
My reason for serving on the committee seemed simple and straightforward — I believed that those Iowans who gave much and sacrificed much in the war deserve a tangible memorial to remind posterity of their extraordinary and often heroic achievements, performed for a noble cause. We have built monuments in various locations on our statehouse grounds to commemorate Iowa’s involvement in the Civil War, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and even the Pearl Harbor attack that precipitated U.S. involvement in the second World War. But we absent-mindedly have never erected memorials to the people who took part in either World War I or World War II. Our committee’s job was to rectify that oversight, for World War II.
The monument committee was started by World War II veterans with the thought that if they did not do something soon, probably no one would do so, since after they were gone no one would remember or fully appreciate the actual event. Some of that core group have already left us, but the committee has persisted and grown gradually to a group of about 30 or 35 people, depending on the day. It still is composed primarily of veterans of World War II, men and women who served in some branch of the armed services during the war years.
We agreed early on that we would build a monument of some kind and that it would honor not only military veterans but also those Iowans who labored and sacrificed at home in Iowa — on the Home Front. They had furnished the armed forces with arms, equipment and food, all essential for successful military operations.
Despite this overt intention to honor military and civilians alike, it seemed to me that we surely knew that the monument would honor the committee members along with other veterans; we could not be totally selfless in our work. But somewhere in a corner of my mind I felt uncomfortable with the thought that we were working on the committee primarily to memorialize our 50 years-ago services to the nation. Certainly some of our members had made great sacrifices — wounded in action, prisoner of war, grunt rifleman serving from Normandy to the Elbe, operation of landing boats in island after island in the Pacific, marine fighter in the Pacific islands, participation in the confusing and often tragic landings on the North African and Italian coasts, or nerve-wrenching bombing runs over central Europe. But others of us, serving on the committee with equal enthusiasm, had never been in imminent danger. We had no reason to think of ourselves as heroes, deserving a monument of any kind.
Nevertheless, month after month we all worked together in ways that seemed amazingly unstructured but that turned out product after product — an agreement with the state to allow erection of a monument on statehouse grounds, a complicated design and bidding session that resulted in an agreed-upon plan for the monument, choice of a site and an architect and a construction firm, a timetable of action, and most importantly a plan (loose but persistent) for raising the three-quarters of a million dollars that would be needed to erect the monument.
In time we sorted ourselves into sub-committees to work out details of the plan. I volunteered to serve on the "Wall of Memories", essentially a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, extracts from letters to the folks back home, photos, cartoons, and even telegrams from the War Department with dread news of the loss of a loved one. All of these memorabilia would be reproduced as engravings on a series of stainless steel panels.
Our weekly "Wall" meetings to sort over the material we had gathered were like trips back in time. Our WAVE veteran found a news article that reminded her of code-breaking duties in San Francisco, so important and serious that to reveal the secrets of their work meant the death penalty. We read letters from POW camps in the Far East that because of censorship essentially said nothing except for the most important news of all, "Mom and Dad, I’m still alive". We sometimes neglected our duties to trade personal recollections, large and small — the messy Cosmoline that covered all parts of newly issued M-l rifles, just how much did a full field pack weigh, the almost comic (but deadly serious) concern of a platoon leader that his men would be sure to follow him as he leaped off the landing craft at a North African beachhead landing. Briefly we were young again. We enjoyed those reminiscence sessions.
But they were not the reason for our — for my — service on the committee. I was still puzzled — why was I there? After all, when I hung up my army uniform at the war’s end, I never again did anything to commemorate my military service. I had not joined any veteran’s organization nor marched in any Fourth of July parade. In fact I had purposely closed the door tight on that part of my life. So now why was I assiduously recreating the past, recalling names and battles and ration cards and military ranks?
I looked for clues in my fellow committee members — what did they say or what in their backgrounds might explain why they were working so single-mindedly on this monument to the past? We were a mixed group — except that we were all old, 70 years and up. For 50 of those years we had gone our separate and highly diverse ways. We ranged from packing house workers to corporate CEOs, from salesmen to school teachers, we were specialists in construction, in homemaking, in science, in law, and in advertising. We made our livings in many ways. This diversity was fortunate for the committee, for we could usually find a specialist in almost every needed committee activity, from fund -raising (who knows the most millionaires?) to erection of the monument (who knows how to keep watch on the contractor?) to dealings with the state government (who knows key legislators or key state officials?).
But I saw no threads of common experience or common character that had put us all on this committee. We certainly were not egotists (maybe that was a common non-character), nor publicity-hounds, nor aggressively flag-waving patriots (but we were not flag burners, either).
Time went on. We had a ground-breaking ceremony, held indoors due to rain. The central 35-foot tall metal Freedom Flame was erected. The Freedom Walk was installed, a pathway marked with successive critical events and battles of the war, and the Wall of Memories was erected.
And finally, on November 11 (the real Armistice Day) of 1996 we formally dedicated our monument, we gave it to the people of Iowa. The day was cold and blustery, alternately cloudy and sunny. We old folks found that we couldn’t stand the cold as well as we had done 50 years earlier. But we soldiered through the ceremony. Somehow it seemed right to suffer; I wondered why. We were surrounded by a surprisingly large crowd of people of all ages; most of them would know what we personally recalled only from their history lessons or from conversations with oldsters like us.
Then the ceremony was over. We veterans and the rest of the throng crowded around the monument grounds. Knots of people clustered at a battle-field inscription on the Freedom Walk, someone pointed at a name on the list of Iowa recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, another person photographed a telegram of death notification posted on the Wall of Memories, others gazed up at the burnished steel stylized burning torch, the Freedom Flame.
I spoke to some of our committee members, we greeted and congratulated each other about the success of our efforts, we were elated. And then suddenly as I looked at the members, their tough old codger masks were pulled aside and I saw something in their eyes that told me why they — and I— had persevered for so long and so earnestly in our work on the monument.
We have all been on a pilgrimage. We have been doing penance for our sin — the sin of surviving the great conflict. Each of us had comrades, brothers, cousins, school-mates who died in the war. We survived. For fifty years we have felt guilty for surviving. No matter that we had no say in it, no control over the chances of war. They died and we did not.
Now we have built a tangible sign of penance — a monument to our comrades. They will not return and we soon will be gone, too. But in so far as we could we have given our comrades a symbol of our thanks for their sacrifice, we have expressed our remorse, and we have asked for their forgiveness.
The book is closed.
(D. N. Duvick,, November, 1996)