The World War II Memorial in Washington DC: An Interpretive Guide

Ariel image of an oval memorial with fountains in the middle and two towers on the short ends.
Aerial view of the World War II Memorial in Washington DC

Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The World War II Memorial was instantly popular with visitors from the time it opened in the spring of 2004. Thousands of veterans who served in World War II witnessed the formal dedication of the memorial as they descended upon the nation’s capital on Memorial Day weekend of that year. Designed by Friedrich St. Florian, former chief of the Rhode Island School of Design, the memorial illustrates the clear relationship between the home front and the battle front, as Americans at home and those fighting abroad relied upon each other’s support in this defining moment of the 20th century.

On the east end of the memorial lies the announcement stone which clearly places the memorial’s context within the landscape of West Potomac Park. As it begins: “Here in the presence of Washington and Lincoln…” the visitor cannot help but understand the deep meaning of the site of this tribute to American sacrifice in World War II. Our “greatest generation” fittingly has a memorial standing as testament to their sacrifices placed cleanly between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

As one continues into the ceremonial entrance of the memorial from the east, the distinct symbolic symmetry of the memorial is apparent. The north side of the memorial stands as tribute to the victory over the Axis powers in Europe, just as the south side symbolizes the victory in the Pacific. Twelve bronze bas-reliefs decorate the walls of the memorial on either side as one approaches the ceremonial plaza. The reliefs chronologically highlight the experience of the war on the home front, placed in context with the battles being waged on land, sea and air. Images of troops landing on beaches in the South Pacific and Normandy are paired with those of farmers and factory workers back home. Celebratory images bring a close to the war as American troops shake hands with Allied troops at war’s end, and celebratory dancing by civilians on American streets echo the end of the fighting. Fittingly, at this juncture, the Rainbow Pool, a facet of West Potomac Park for decades, and now part and parcel of the World War II Memorial, accentuates the two victories with its stately, impressive fountains.

It is here, in the center of the memorial, that one finds themselves surrounded by statements from  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Harry S Truman, author Walter Lord and commanding officers of the U.S. military. The words etched upon the walls of the memorial place in clear context their place in the European and Pacific theaters, and broad statements regarding the war in general. Small fountains grace victory pavilions of the respective fronts, skirted by the names of great battles in the Atlantic and Pacific. Within the victory pavilions, a large rendering of the World War II victory medal is centered upon the memorial floor, depicting the Greek goddess Nike heralding the dawn of a new era of peace. Directly above the victory medal, four stately American bald eagles, symbols of not only our nation, but of the Army, the Army Air Corps, the Navy and the Marines hold aloft an ancient symbol of victory, a laurel wreath. As one glances over the Rainbow Pool from the balcony of the victory pavilions, your field of vision is captured by a large field of gold stars on the west side of the memorial.

Each gold star represents 100 Americans who died in the war. Just over 4,000 of these stars clearly reflect the loss of 405,399 Americans in this titanic struggle.  The field of stars is underscored by a granite marker embedded with the words “Here We Mark the Price of Freedom.” If one stands before the field of gold stars, the Rainbow Pool fountains and the waterfalls cascading on either side of the stars tend to obscure all extraneous sound. This audible effect coupled with the height of the wall bearing the star field, visually obscures structures in the distance, creating an effect of a sacred space within a sacred space. This area is thus audibly and visually isolated from the memorial exterior, allowing the visitor to pay their respect to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice on a more intimate level.

Fifty-six columns surround the field of gold stars as if in the form of a guard of honor. The 48 states of the union during the war and the eight territories, including Alaska, Hawaii and the Philippines, branch out from the gold stars in order of state ratification of the Constitution, and admittance as a state or acquisition as a possession. Each column has a hollow center reflecting the individual loss of each state or territory in the war. Two wreaths decorate each column in the form of wheat (the bounty of home front agriculture) and one of oak (American strength of industry). A heavy rope binds each of the states and territories together, so as to represent our nation coming together in this great struggle.

Two engravings, marked “Kilroy Was Here” are tucked into corners of both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the memorial. This “signature” of the memorial confers a further “tip of the hat” to the generation that served in World War II. This catch phrase, popular with troops overseas which clearly denoted that “the Yanks were here.”

Last updated: July 9, 2020