8 U.S. Places that Honor the Triumphs and Tragedies of World War II
Editors' note: Please check individual sites' websites for updates on COVID-19 related closures.
Visitors to Moton Field could be excused for feeling like they’ve suddenly stepped back in time. The cavernous, 1940s-era Hangar One, located alongside the Tuskegee, Alabama, airfield where nearly 1,000 African American pilots trained during World War II, still convulses with the roaring sounds of a PT-17 Stearman biplane and the purposeful voices of mechanics and ground crew.
This sort of bustle and industry was an everyday occurrence at Moton Field, which today is home to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. It was also the kind of determined effort required in order for African American pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and others to overcome racism at home and earn the opportunity to serve their country overseas. With a mixture of videos, audio recordings, airplanes, equipment, photos, and first-person oral histories from former Tuskegee Airmen, the site tells that complicated dual history. “We have exhibits that tell the story of what was known as the double victory,” says Frank Toland, a ranger at Tuskegee. “Against racism here and against fascism abroad.”
The Tuskegee Airmen site is one of many historic memorials, museums, and monuments around the country—in addition to newer sites such as the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.—that honors the sacrifices made in the war, which ended 75 years ago this year. For example, while the exhibits at Moton Field celebrate those who took to the air, Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts, captures the stories and experiences of those who spent their war years at sea. The site contains a maritime museum and five National Historic Landmark naval ships, including the 680-foot-long battleship USS Massachusetts and the submarine USS Lionfish, both of which saw action during the war.
Today, visitors can tour the vessels and get a firsthand feel for sailors’ claustrophobic existence. “We still have the canvas racks [where sailors slept] here, which were stacked four high and spaced 18 inches apart,” says Brad Lima, the executive director of Battleship Cove. The site’s Nautical Nights program also lets kids spend a night onboard to see what Navy life was really like.
The combination of immersive experiences with history and remembrance is a big part of the mission of The War Memorial in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan. Once the residence of businessman Russell Alger Jr., the son of a former Michigan governor, the sprawling Italian Renaissance mansion was donated to the Grosse Pointe War Memorial Association in 1949. Today, visitors to the home’s main vestibule can see bronze plaques with the names of the 3,444 Grosse Pointe citizens who served in World War II, as well as plaques honoring veterans who served in more recent wars. From its inception, though, The War Memorial was also designed to be a community hub—a place for a wide range of events, including concerts and performances in a newly renovated theater, as well as art, exercise, and cooking classes. Integrating the place into the city’s everyday life makes it easier to preserve the stories and legacy of Grosse Pointe veterans.
The USS Arizona Memorial is a place you have to go out of your way to get to—but it’s well worth the effort. Part of Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Hawaii, it was built in 1962 and floats over the wreckage of a battleship destroyed by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941, as part of the attack that precipitated the United States’ entry into World War II. The Modernist memorial is only accessible by boat and contains a shrine with the names of the 1,177 sailors and Marines who died on the ship.
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Just five years after the end of the war, the Virginia General Assembly approved plans for the Virginia War Memorial, which perches above the James River and downtown Richmond. In an open pavilion reminiscent of a Greek temple, the site initially listed the names of the roughly 10,000 Virginians who perished in World War II and the Korean War. In subsequent years, those of Virginians who fought and died in later wars have been added—some in the original building and some in an expansion that opened earlier this year.
Also opening this year was the site’s new C. Kenneth Wright Pavilion, and in 2010 the memorial completed a museum, auditorium, and amphitheater called the Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center. “We now have displays that cover all of American military history, with a lot of emphasis on World War II,” says Clay Mountcastle, the memorial’s director. “We also have a documentary film series called Virginians at War that captures the stories of World War II vets.”
Across the country, set amid a grove of Monterey pines and cypress trees overlooking the San Francisco Bay, a wall of California granite displays the names of 413 men and women. Part of the 1,500-acre Presidio of San Francisco, the West Coast Memorial to the Missing of World War II remembers those who served and died in American coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean during the war. “It ranges from accidents like airplanes and bombers going down and also a submarine that sank off the coast of Panama,” says John Bertland, the Presidio’s digital librarian and research specialist. The memorial is one of three built by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which spearheads the management of overseas cemeteries for U.S. service members, to honor those who went missing during the war.
North of San Francisco, near the border of Oregon, is a reminder of a dark side of the World War II home front. Designated as part of a larger national monument in 2008 and named an independent one in 2019, the Tule Lake National Monument preserves an incarceration camp where more than 29,000 Japanese Americans were held because of unfounded fears that they would aid the enemy. “We highlight the incarceration of American citizens; that is definitely central to our whole theme,” says Larry Whalon, the monument’s superintendent. “They looked different, so they were locked up. We want to capture that mentality and the surrounding history.” Every other Fourth of July, hundreds of Japanese Americans visit the monument to remember those who were forced to live at the site.
Not all visits to World War II monuments and memorials require a special trip. If you happen to be traveling through Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, be sure to linger at the Pennsylvania Railroad War Memorial. The bronze statue of the Archangel Michael, the biblical angel of the resurrection, holding a deceased soldier was commissioned as a way to honor the 1,307 Pennsylvania railroad employees who fought and died in the war.
The work was personal for the artist, Walker Hancock, who served in the war and also fashioned angels for a monument at the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in France. The names of all 1,307 fallen soldiers are carved into the statue’s granite pedestal, and the 1952 commissioning ceremony was attended by World War II hero Gen. Omar Bradley.
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