The story of how America finally built a memorial to the greatest war in history begins not on a distant battlefield or in the halls of Congress, but at the annual fish fry in Jerusalem Township, Ohio.
It was a cold night in February 1987. Marcy Kaptur had just loaded her plate with Lake Erie perch when a man's voice boomed across the room: "Hey, Congresswoman Kaptur! Why is there no World War II memorial in Washington?" Impossible, thought Kaptur, then a three-term Democrat. Then she had it: What about the big statue of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima?
"No!" replied Roger Durbin. He had twinkling eyes, a square jaw and a teasing grin -- Norman Rockwell with an attitude. "That's a memorial to one service," he said.
They sat and talked. And that year, Kaptur introduced legislation to create a National World War II Memorial in Washington. It seemed like an idea whose time was overdue.
But when the memorial opens to the public this month, 17 years will have passed since Kaptur's fish fry epiphany -- four times as long as it took to win the war. Only 4 million of the 16 million Americans who fought in the war are still alive, and they are dying at a rate of 1,056 a day.
The memorial, which will be dedicated May 29 during Memorial Day weekend, is on the National Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial -- "the most precious civic real estate in America," according to Nicolaus Mills, author of a book about the memorial due out next month.
The granite and bronze memorial is slightly longer than a football field and has a sunken plaza that contains a pool and fountains. It is lined by 56 columns, one for each U.S. state and territory in 1945. Two arches 43 feet high representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters flank the memorial. Its far wall bears a field of 4,000 gold stars, one for every 100 Americans killed in the war.
The site symbolically establishes World War II as one of three pivotal events in American history -- equal to the nation's founding in the 18th century (represented by the Washington Monument) and its preservation in the 19th century (the Lincoln Memorial).