Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C., is often paradoxical. On the one hand, it may be a time for quiet reflection, honoring the service of military veterans. On the other, it can be a noisy, almost boisterous, holiday—with concerts, parades, cookouts, and even the opening of outdoor swimming pools to the public.
What may be Washington’s most memorable Memorial Day occurred in 2004, when the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the American Battle Monuments Commission produced the National World War II Reunion in conjunction with the official dedication of the National World War II Memorial. Looking back at the event fifteen years later reinforces the paradoxical quality of the Memorial Day holiday, as both somber and celebratory.
On the somber side, the holiday was initially known as Decoration Day because citizens would decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. These traditions continue in the Washington area, especially at Arlington National Cemetery, where a wreath-laying ceremony and observance program take place on the holiday itself—which federal law in 1968 moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
On the celebratory side is an abundance of sounds. This year’s National Memorial Day Concert features music by Alison Krauss, Patti LaBelle, and others, starting at 8 p.m. Sunday on the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn. Also heard are the cadences of marching bands at the National Memorial Day Parade, taking place along Constitution Avenue NW on Monday. And loudest of all are the engines from heavyweight motorcycles taking part in the Rolling Thunder Run, starting at noon on Sunday.
According to news reports, this may be Rolling Thunder’s final run. Every Memorial Day weekend since 1988, thousands of motorcycles have roared through the streets of Washington to pay homage to U.S. veterans, especially those of the Vietnam era. The riders follow the same route every year—from the Pentagon parking lot across the Memorial Bridge, east on Constitution Avenue, south on Third Street NW, and west on Independence Avenue to the area around the Reflecting Pool, Lincoln Memorial, and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Every year except one. In 2004, the motorcycles took a detour in order to avoid disrupting the National World War II Reunion on the Mall.
The National Park Service, which administers the National Mall, stopped trying to count visitors for public events following the controversy over numbers at the Million March in 1995. Accordingly we can only estimate that more than 300,000 people came to the National World War II Reunion in 2004 to meet veterans and hear stories, listen to music, learn about the war, and reunite.
Indeed at the very center of the event was Reunion Hall, a massive pavilion where WWII veterans and their families came to socialize, relax, and reconnect with their service colleagues. Winding its way inside Reunion Hall was the “Reunion Board,” which stood eight feet tall and extended more than 700 linear feet. Members of the WWII generation—many of whom were unaccustomed to internet research—pinned postcard-sized messages on the board as a way of connecting with their former colleagues.
Inside the Wartime Stories pavilion were 1,300 chairs for listening to a diverse group of veterans and war workers. There were Navajo Code Talkers, Tuskegee Airmen, and Japanese Americans who were held in internment camps, as well as those who served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. There were also major political figures and public servants (such as Bob Dole and George McGovern), authors and journalists (such as Tony Hillerman, Allen Neuharth, and Mike Wallace), film and television entertainers (such as Ossie Davis and Jack Palance), sports figures (such as Bob Feller, Monte Irvin, and Buck O’Neil), historians (such as Martha Putney and Howard Zinn), and many more.
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The Veterans History Project in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress had its own pavilion, where it not only showcased its work—of collecting, preserving, and making accessible the personal accounts of U.S. war veterans—but also collected (with the help of some 400 volunteers) the memories of the WWII veterans who attended the reunion. Many of these “On the Mall” interviews are now online, including those with Robert Alexander, who carried out his parents’ wishes to “help dismantle this Jim Crow system”; Muriel Olsen, who tells of her service in the Coast Guard; and Jose Montealegre, who was captured and escaped in the Philippines.
Other areas at the reunion included:
- A “Preserving Memories” pavilion, where experts advised veterans and their families how to save and protect the material culture of the war, such as letters, clippings, scrapbooks, diaries, maps, photographs, moving pictures, memorabilia, medals, uniforms, and more.
- A “Building the Memorial” pavilion, which related the story of planning and building memorials on the National Mall, culminating in the design and construction of the National World War II Memorial.
- A family activities pavilion, where hands-on activities relating to the WWII period provided opportunities for children of all ages to crack coded messages (based on a cryptographic key), write a brief V-Mail letter, distinguish between U.S. and enemy aircraft (based on silhouettes and a plane-spotting poster), use ration coupons, and learn how to jitterbug.
Knowing that jitterbugging visitors would need lively music for dancing, the reunion featured a variety of big bands and orchestras, as well as military ensembles and smaller groups playing blues, Hawaiian music, and Western swing. For the occasion, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings even produced a special CD, Tribute to a Generation: A Salute to the Big Bands of the WWII Era performed by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
The National World War II Reunion was probably the largest gathering of WWII veterans in one place since the war ended in 1945, and certainly the last such gathering of its kind. The event not only brought history to the National Mall but made history as well. In 2004, an estimated four million WWII veterans were alive. Today, according to several sources, the number is closer to 500,000. The National World War II Reunion certainly helped to ensure that their memories will not fade away.
James Deutsch has been a curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage since 2003, when he was hired to curate the National World War II Reunion. The story of his hiring was featured in the Style section of the Washington Post.