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World War I Centennial Inspires a National Memorial

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

Next April will mark the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I. It is known as the Great War for both the enormous scale of its conflict and for the moral belief that it would be the war to end all wars.

But this war does not seem as documented in our memories as the wars that followed. Unlike the Vietnam era, we did not see nightly television reports around our dinner tables. The aftermath of World War 1 hardly had time to root itself in the country’s consciousness when, soon after, the Great Depression and World War II superseded it.

Although communities have erected memorials to recognize these wars, national memorials have taken a while to follow. The Vietnam Memorial was the first to be built in our capital followed by the Korean War and World War II memorials. While there is a local monument in Washington, D.C., to commemorate World War I, there is no national one. But that is about to change.

In 2013, Congress chartered the United States World War I Centennial Commission to not only honor the 4.7 million men and women who served, but to create a means of education, shedding light on the way this war still affects the world today. It redrew the political map, created new nations and borders, destroyed four empires, and sowed the seeds of resentment that led to World War II and the 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia. The United States suffered more deaths in six months than it did in eight years in Vietnam.

To create a memorial befitting the magnitude of this sacrifice, the Commemorative Commission launched a two-stage international design competition. Given the international significance of the war, the commission wanted to extend this opportunity to other countries.

Stage 1 was an open call for designers, architects and non-licensed professionals to submit design concepts. After a review of 360 entries from around the world, five finalists were selected to participate in Stage 2, in which their concepts were further refined and developed.

The memorial setting will be in the current Pershing Park, dedicated to Gen. John J. (Black Jack) Pershing, who was the commander of the United States Expeditionary Force in Europe.

The park, located at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, will be expanded and developed as both a memorial site and a functioning park. Each cubic foot will represent the death of a United States soldier, 116,516 in all. The bronze medium used throughout will stand for the timeless endeavor in our pursuit of freedom.

The winners of the competition are 25-year-old Chicago architect Joseph Weishaar, and New York sculptor Sabin Howard. Their entry, “The Weight of Sacrifice,” portrays the idea that public space and public freedom are hard won through the sacrifices and losses of countless individuals. This theme is expressed through three different means.

The first is an 81-foot figurative relief sculpture titled “The Wall of Remembrance” that depicts 23 civilian figures who transform into battered soldiers who have formed brotherly ties having faced the horrors of battle together.

The second is a series of quotation walls that guide visitors around the memorial. The quotes are the words of generals, politicians and soldiers of the day.

The third is a freestanding sculpture titled “Wheels of Humanity,” which symbolizes the engine of war, referring to the tested and bonded soldiers who depend on each other, feed each other’s courage and heroism, and to whom they look for guidance and action.

The 137-foot north and south walls are emblazoned with words of a generation gone by. The walls gradually slip into the earth drawing their wisdom with them. The lawn of the park represents the freedom built upon the great weight of sacrifice. Together, they express the sacrificial cost of war that leads to the freedom we enjoy. As the saying goes, lest we not forget that freedom is not free.

The target date for the memorial’s ground-breaking is Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2017. The project is expected to cost between $21 million and $25 million and is funded entirely by private dollars raised from corporations, foundations and the public.

During this Memorial Day weekend, I’ll be donating to honor my grandfather, Adamo Polidori, just one among millions who endured the harshest of nature’s temperament and the bitterness of war, itself. If you’d like to pay tribute to your loved one or to an unknown soldier, visit You can also see amazing and heartfelt videos and more photos on the World War I Centennial Commission Facebook page.

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