WWII tribute set in stone, maybe (USA Today)

By Richard Benedetto, USA Today

WASHINGTON — World War II ended 56 years ago. Of the 16 million people who served in the U.S. armed forces from 1941 to 1945, barely 5 million are still alive. Mostly in their 70s and 80s, they are said to be dying at a rate of 1,100 a day.

And yet Washington still doesn’t have a memorial to honor their service. Indeed, the battle to get the memorial built has lasted longer than the war.

But now, with Congress stepping in a week before Memorial Day, construction of a World War II Memorial on the National Mall could begin this summer.

Legislation that received final approval Tuesday and is expected to be signed by President Bush by the end of the week orders construction to begin without further review.

”I sincerely hope this is the last legislative action Congress will have to take before the dedication of the World War II Memorial in 2004,” said Rep. Bob Stump, R-Ariz., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

The legislation seeks to end years of bitter fighting that began in 1993, when Congress authorized construction of the memorial on the National Mall.

Opponents argued against everything from the location to the design, which they said reminded them of Nazi architecture and would block the area’s sweeping vistas.

In lawsuits against federal agencies and commissions, they said laws and procedures had been violated during the approval process.

”Anyone who loves the city and admires the uniqueness of Washington and the Mall cannot possibly want the particular memorial that will go up,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s Democratic delegate to Congress, said Tuesday. ”The Mall is the urban equivalent of the Grand Canyon. There should never be anything in the middle of the Grand Canyon.”

The fight pitted veteran against veteran over whether the government was being too heavy-handed in trying to get its way. Tempers ran so high that on Monday about 20 World War II veterans stood outside the Capitol and threatened to return their medals if the measure passed.

”I would gladly give up my Purple Heart,” said Clark Ashby, 78, a veteran from Carbondale, Ill. ”We were fighting against exactly the sort of thing that’s going on.”

Ashby and others said that by blocking further legal reviews, Congress is circumventing the freedom and democracy they fought for.

Former senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, a disabled World War II veteran who led the campaign to raise $170 million in private donations for the project, said that’s ridiculous.

”Our generation saved the world, and the Mall was a part of it,” Dole said. ”It’s a little late . . . to come back now and talk about moving the memorial. Congress did the right thing. We’ve got to get this thing completed while some of us are still alive.”

Last week, Bush expressed his own concern: ”It is more important than ever that we move quickly to begin construction if those who served are to see the nation’s permanent expression of remembrance and thanks,” he said.

The legislation approved Tuesday was hastily drafted this month after the National Capital Planning Commission, the central planning agency for the federal government in the Washington area, decided to reopen debate over the memorial’s location and design.

The commission was concerned that its earlier decision to move ahead might have been illegal because a vote was cast by a member whose term had expired.

That question caused the commission to set a public hearing for June 13-14 to revisit all aspects of the memorial.

The legislation passed Tuesday presumably would halt the hearings, but lawyers for opponents will examine the bill to see whether any avenues for challenge are left open.

Even with the location fight apparently over, the legislation still allows for design reviews. And opponents say they will try to build public sentiment against it.

Design opponents say the memorial’s use of stone slabs, square columns, golden eagles and triumphal arches suggest Nazi symbolism.

”The American people really don’t know anything about the design, and we’re going to keep talking about it to help people understand why we’re opposed,” said Beth Solomon, spokeswoman for the National Coalition to Save Our Mall.

Dole dismisses the Nazi-architecture argument as ”grumbling” by disgruntled architects who didn’t get the job. ”To keep this fight going any longer is an insult to all World War II veterans and their families,” he said.

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