Reflections of Sacrifice
An impromptu foray into Washington, D.C. on a beautiful June day left me with many indelible images and a profound sense of gratitude.
June 6, 2015
A year ago, I was awakened by the sun shining through the bedroom window and a radio announcer noting that it was the 75th anniversary of the WWII D-day landing. I looked outside, saw a beautiful blue sky dotted with white, puffy clouds, and suddenly knew how I was going to spend the day: going to DC to see the WWII memorial. It was a definitive thought, almost like a voice, that just announced itself in my mind. I didn’t debate it, weigh any pros and cons, or come up with things I should be doing around the house instead. I just knew that I was going to the WWII memorial. That was that.
So I got dressed quickly — at 8:00 on my day off, that is very unusual — went into the living room, and told my husband, Lou, of my plans and invited him along. He started to hem and haw, so I said, “I’m going with or without you. I hope you’ll come along, but either way that’s where I’m going, and I’m leaving soon.” Lou had never been to the WWII memorial, so I was glad when he grabbed a baseball cap and followed me out the door.
After a quick drive to the nearest Metro station, two train transfers on the subway, and a fascinating conversation with an out-of-town visitor who works as a chef on the Alaskan pipeline, we emerged onto D.C.’s famous mall, greeted by the monolithic Washington Monument. We walked past it and on to the WWII Memorial. Although I had been there a few times before, I was instantly struck, once again, by its beauty and poignance.
A Memorial Like No Other
The WWII Memorial isn’t a monument in the normal sense. It’s more of a park, or maybe an open, outdoor cathedral of sorts. The design is simple yet elegant, and powerful: a circle of concrete pillars representing all 50 states and the U.S. territories; two “pavilions” to represent the Atlantic and Pacific theaters; the Rainbow Pool, with a circle of fountains around a geyser water feature; a series of bas relief panels along some walkways, showing scenes from battle and on the homefront; and….the Freedom Wall (pictured at the top of this story), one of the most breathtaking and moving things I’ve ever seen. Each of its 4,048 gold stars represent 100 Americans who died in WWII.
Stop; re-read that last sentence. Do the math. Let it sink in.
The first time I saw that wall, and read the explanatory plaque, I was rendered motionless for several minutes, tears streaming down my face. I had, of course, studied about WWII and had heard the statistics, but reading about 400,000 U.S. deaths in combat and seeing them represented in this way are two very different things. The visual impact of this large wall, totally covered in neat rows of stars mirrored in the reflecting pool in front of it, is very powerful. Being struck with the full realization of just what all those stars represent — bloody, horrible deaths on the battlefield or in the air or sea, young lives cut short, mourning families back home — can pull the air right out of you and render you temporarily paralyzed by emotions. Sadness, horror, anger…. but also pride and gratitude.
The 75th Anniversary
Every time I’ve been to the memorial, some visiting WWII vets were there, often from far reaches of the country. Usually there is just a small group or two, sometimes flown in on Veteran Honor Flights. But on this day, not surprisingly because of the milestone anniversary, there were many. Some were there with family members, some were with groups; many were wearing hats or jackets or patches from their service days; and one veteran, amazingly, was wearing what seemed to be his actual WWII uniform, faded, a bit tattered, with a hint of moth ball smell, but with a good fit.
On one side of the Rainbow Pool, dozens of colorful wreaths covered with live flowers and ribbons and displayed on wire stands were lined up in front of the state pillars. They were from the embassies of foreign countries, some of them part of the Allied Forces, some not. All conveyed a simple sentiment on their ribbons: Thank you. “Thank you, United States and your citizens, for your leading role in ending the war to end all wars, and for the many sacrifices this victory required.” Seeing this type of sentiment on wreath after wreath gave me a sense of pride and patriotism, as well as a new perspective on the phrase we usually say without thinking about its true meaning: world war. World. War. May it never happen again.
Rows of chairs had been set up for a ceremony that was set to begin about an hour after we arrived. People were claiming seats, placing wheelchairs at the ends of the rows, calling out to others in their party. A school group, its “tweenage” kids dressed in matching red tee-shirts, was crowded around a tour guide. WWII-era music was playing over a loudspeaker, program coordinators holding clipboards were bustling around a speaker’s podium, and a group of important-looking people (military officers and men in suits) gathered off to the side in the shade of a large tree, being briefed on the upcoming cermony’s order of events. As Lou and I walked the perimeter around the Rainbow Pool, in the shadow of the state pillars, the crowd sounds echoed around us, mixing with the continuous loud splashing noises from the fountain’s spray.
We reached one of the pavilions, and Lou went to the back of it to read its inscription. I climbed the few steps to the landing overlooking the fountain and walked out from under the pavilion, hoping to get some good camera shots of the pool and fountain.
That’s when I saw him.
A lone veteran, hunched in his wheelchair, was on the balcony, looking out over the scene. Another man stood nearby, possibly his son or grandson, holding a water bottle and a backpack. It was clear that they were visiting together, but unlike other pairs or groups, they did not talk. They were still and silent. At one point, the veteran’s companion walked a bit off to the side, thus allowing him a few moments of solitude and reflection. The veteran slowly lowered his head and looked down at his hands, folded in his lap.
I didn’t walk forward to take my photos of the fountain. Instead, I took a single picture of the veteran and kept my distance so as not to interrupt his meditations. I wondered what he was thinking about: His experience in the war? The buddies who didn’t return with him? The passage of time? I tried to imagine how it would feel to reflect on something one had personally experienced SEVENTY-FIVE years earlier; looking back at 40-years-past events is sobering enough for me. Add to that the magnitude and significance of the events this man had experienced, in some capacity… well, I just couldn’t imagine what was going through his mind.
I debated whether I should walk up to him, shake his hand, thank him — as I’d seen others do to other veterans there that day. But it just didn’t seem like the moment to do that. (Later, I followed suit behind several people who shook the hand of a different wheelchair-bound veteran, and noticed that he didn’t seem to feel comfortable with the attention.) Instead, while standing behind him and before quietly walking back down the stairs, I offered up a silent prayer of thanks for him and for all of the other men and women who, by serving their countries, had saved the world.
Among those who served in WWII were my maternal grandfather, Fred Ecker, and my father-in-law, Louis Mezzanotte. My grandfather served in the Pacific Theater toward the end of the war and then was stationed in Japan during the post-war period. Lou’s father fought on battlefields in North Africa and Europe; among the items he brought home was the armband of a Nazi soldier, although the story behind that armband is unknown and now lost to history. Like many others who served, neither man talked much about the war. My grandfather died of lung cancer in 1984, and Lou’s dad died of a heart attack in 1988, so both of them and their stories were gone before the memorial was built and before Tom Brokaw and other journalists began conducting oral-history interviews to chronicle the experiences of the Greatest Generation. It’s understandable that they didn’t want to relive some of the horrors they saw and felt, or traumatize others with the accounts. And yet how I wish we had been more interested back then and asked more questions, so that we could piece together the narratives of their first-hand experiences and personal contributions to the war effort, to be passed down to our families’ future generations.
At the memorial, when the 5-minute announcement instructed people to take their seats for the ceremony, Lou and I decided not to stay, but to instead walk to the Lincoln Memorial. We noticed a sign for the WWII Registry on our way out of the memorial grounds, and stopped to look at it. I typed in my grandfather’s name and was initially excited to see a record come up. However, I soon realized that it was a different Fred Ecker. I determined then and there that I would add his name and picture to the registry, which I was able to do a few weeks later after gathering the necessary information from my mom and grandmother. (To browse the registry or learn how to add someone to it, click here.)
Expecting the same result on Lou’s father, I typed his name. But this time, the right name and city appeared: Louis J. Mezzanotte, Waterbury, CT.
I gasped, pleasantly surprised, and then touched the screen to open up his record. That’s when I was hit with another emotional wallop, for the third or fourth time that day, because another familiar name had appeared on the screen, as well: that of Lou’s mother, Octavia Mezzanotte, in the “honored by” field. Octavia had died the preceding December, and we had just recently visited her gravesite in Connecticut. Seeing both of their names on the screen, framed by our own reflections, was a breathtaking moment, especially within the context of the day. Because in that instant, I realized that even a world war has very personal impact.
Every person who served, every person who survived, every person who didn’t return, every person who prayed for their loved ones’ deliverance or mourned their loss, who bought or sold war bonds, who back-filled factory jobs to keep the homeland’s economy running, or planted victory gardens, or practiced civil defense drills…or hid in fear in a European attic, changed their names, fled their homes, or… in the most tragic circumstances of all, those who were unable to escape and met unspeakable ends at the hands of pure evil…. Every single person in the WORLD was affected, somehow, on a personal level.
Those effects continue today, ripples of consequence that are ever-diminishing but still visible. Perhaps the world will never totally recover from WWII, or from any other wars, for that matter. As weapons and technology “advance,” the potential rises for even worse death and destruction and greater, longer-lasting impact in the event of another such large-scale conflict. Which makes it all the more imperative that citizens and governments of all the world’s nations do everything within their power to prevent it from happening again.
And which is also why it’s important for us to build monuments, to honor those who died and to thank those who served. And to pause, reflect, and remember.
The calendar caption reads: Reflecting on a soldiers life; all freedom’s forged through sacrifice.