A Memorial on the High Ground

April 1, 2003
A campaign to establish a memorial to the sacrifices of the men and women of the Air Force and its predecessor organizations has gained substantial momentum with the unveiling of a new design and a move to a prominent new site in the national capital area.

More than 10 years of hard work by the Air Force Memorial Foundation now appears to be paying off. It is continuing its fund-raising program and stated this fall it had sufficient funds to begin to work on the project. That declaration started the “clock” running on a two-year period within which the Pentagon must prepare the new site for construction.

This new site is in Virginia, just west of the Potomac River and close to the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery. It is called the Navy Annex grounds. At present, federal buildings occupy part of this site, but they will be removed and the grounds cleared.

The goal: break ground in fall 2004 and complete construction of the memorial by the Air Force’s 59th anniversary date of Sept. 18, 2006.

“ We’ve got tremendous support for this memorial,” said Ross Perot Jr. of Dallas, the chairman of the Air Force Memorial Foundation. “It is a very beautiful memorial. It is going to add a huge amount to the D.C. skyline.

Building a memorial in the Washington area always poses a challenge, said Perot, but he is optimistic that the memorial will encounter no further serious obstacles to construction.

“ It’s been a tremendous team project between the Air Force, Air Force alumni, and the Defense Department,” Perot reported.

Originally, plans called for building the memorial on a site known as Arlington Ridge, a stretch of low, rolling ground in Virginia just down a slope from the Marine Corps Iwo Jima Memorial. The first Air Force Memorial structural design featured a large, inverted five-point star.

Soaring to Glory

In 2002, with the decision to relocate the memorial from Arlington Ridge to the new site, the memorial foundation realized the original design seemed inappropriate for the new venue. The new location is high on a promontory, overlooking the Potomac River and Washington to the north. Something better suited was required

.Thus, the foundation held a new design competition, again picking the firm of Pei Cobb Freed, designers of the previous Arlington Ridge structure. In directions to the competitors, the foundation’s board made it clear that the memorial should be “soaring.” That, according to the president of the Air Force Memorial Foundation, is exactly what they got.

“ I think we can honestly say this [design] is soaring to glory,” said Maj. Gen. Edward F. Grillo Jr., USAF (Ret.). “I think it truly represents the Air Force.”

The most visible aspect of the new design is its collection of three soaring, arched spires. The three taper at the top and appear to trail off in the sky. They might represent three aircraft soaring upward or three missiles. Or, perhaps, just soaring aspirations.

“ We … do not try to articulate what this represents; we only suggest some possibilities, because it can represent different things to different people,” said Grillo. “It’s truly a memorial for everybody in the Air Force and our predecessor organizations.”

The design would set into the ground—between the bases of the three spires—a large five-pointed star. Circumscribing the star and rising nine feet into the air will be an Air Force Memorial Chamber of glass, bearing inscriptions and images. Off to one side will be a 12-foot-tall Contemplation Chamber, also of cast glass, with inscriptions. To the other side will be statues representing an honor guard.

Overall height of the monument, to the tip of its tallest spire, is currently set at 270 feet. Because the Navy Annex site is located near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration had to approve this aspect of the design, which it did on Feb. 17.

The foundation also is planning to present its design to the National Capital Planning Commission and the US Commission of Fine Arts, which oversee memorial construction in Washington’s core monument area. Under terms of the legislation allowing use of the Navy Annex, however, the foundation does not have to win their official approval. It is going before these bodies for review and comment.

The foundation has conducted tests of the site to determine whether and to what extent there might be ground contamination. It has also determined the overall stability of the site. Test results indicate these are not issues. At issue is what other memorials, if any, will be allowed to coexist with the Air Force Memorial on the Navy Annex site. The government of Arlington County, Va., has expressed a desire to construct nearby a tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 terror attack on the Pentagon. It would be in the area south of the annex. The Air Force Memorial Foundation says it does not oppose this and believes the two memorials would complement each other.

The briefing process for the new memorial got under way last summer. All the relevant government boards and commissions, local legislators, Air Force leaders, and local homeowner groups have been included in detailed consultations.

The foundation is continuing to refine construction costs. At this point, the foundation has raised $33 million and believes it is only $5 million short of its goal. Donations have been received from more than 140,000 individuals and numerous corporations. Boeing has contributed $5 million; Lockheed Martin, $4 million; Raytheon, $2 million; Northrop Grumman, $1.5 million; United Technologies (through Pratt & Whitney, Hamilton Standard, and Sikorsky), $1 million; and General Electric and TRW, $0.5 million each.

Foundation officials have more fund-raising to conduct; they say the enthusiasm generated by the design unveiling should quickly put them over the top.

“ We hope that by summer or fall we’ll have a general contractor on board,” said Pete Lindquist, the foundation’s vice president of operations.

Undisputed Need

The need for a monument near the capital honoring the millions of Americans who have served in the Air Force, Army Air Corps, and Army Air Forces has been clear for years. The Air Force is the only US military branch that does not have a memorial in the nation’s capital. Yet the air arm has suffered more than 55,000 combat deaths from World War II to the Gulf War, second only to the Army among the four US armed services.

Organized efforts to erect such a memorial date back to the 1992 incorporation of the Air Force Memorial Foundation. In 1993, President Clinton signed legislation authorizing the Air Force Memorial Foundation to raise funds and pursue a building permit for a Washington, D.C., area site.

After surveying at least 18 sites, the memorial foundation decided to pursue construction at Arlington Ridge. The foundation won site approval from both the National Capital Memorial Commission and the US Commission of Fine Arts. Pei Cobb Freed developed a design molded to the meadow-like site: the five-pointed star was intended to stand only about 50 feet tall.

In April 1997, a local Arlington neighborhood group, Friends of Iwo Jima, objected to what they claimed would be a loss of green space and increase in traffic caused by the memorial. They joined forces with Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R–N.Y.), a Marine Corps veteran, to fight the memorial in Congress and the courts.

Other Marine veterans rushed to defend the “hallowed ground” of the famous Iwo Jima statue. The Marine Corps itself offered support for the protest as well, despite the fact that it had been consulted on the foundation choice years earlier and the memorial had received the explicit approval of the Commandant, Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr.

The foundation followed the legal planning process by the book and successfully defended its choice at several points in the courts. At a dedication ceremony for the site Sept. 18, 1997, some participants noted that the Iwo Jima Memorial was more than 500 feet away and screened by a copse of trees. No part of it—not even the tip of its flagpole—was visible from the foundation site.

Yet opponents continued to delay the project via Congressional action and threatened further litigation. By 2000, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Air Force Chief of Staff, had become actively involved and began to work with the foundation to settle the dispute. Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon was also deeply involved.

By fall 2001, it was clear that further delay was in no one’s interest. Congress in December settled the matter by directing the foundation to move the Air Force Memorial to a new location: the promontory point of the Navy Annex property.

The new site was well-known to the leaders of the foundation. It had been considered earlier in their site selection process and given high marks. However, the site was not seriously considered, said Grillo, because it did not seem it would become available in the near future.

The new site is arguably more prominent than the old one. It sits on the prow of a ridge with clear views in three directions. It is easily visible from the Pentagon, is adjacent to and overlooks Arlington National Cemetery, and sits hard against one of Washington’s main thoroughfares: Interstate 395. The foundation estimates that some 170,000 vehicles pass the site each day on their way in and out of Washington’s core.

Lucky Break

“ Planning documents for Washington by the National Planning Commission show this as a great place for a monument,” said Grillo. “It is a gateway to both Washington and Arlington County.”

The Navy Annex site was rejected in the first go-around principally because it provided much-needed office space for the Department of Defense.

Then two things happened. First, the long-running litigation imposed major delays on construction, more or less obviating the problem of having to wait too long. “Who would have guessed we would still be working on the memorial 10 years after the foundation was formed?” asked Grillo.

Second, planning for long-term use of Navy Annex space came into clearer focus. The Pentagon now knows it will be able to relinquish the Navy Annex buildings as Pentagon renovation phases out in specific years.

Under terms of the legislation that set up the move to the Navy Annex site, up to three acres will be set aside for Air Force Memorial use. The land will include the promontory point and the ground currently under the wing of the federal office building nearest the point. The foundation in September notified the Secretary of Defense that it has sufficient funds to commence construction, marking the start of a 24-month period in which DOD must demolish that wing and prepare the site.

Plans call for demolition of the remaining buildings by the year 2010. The site then becomes part of Arlington Cemetery.

Grillo said many audiences have been briefed, but, so far, he has not received any negative comments about the new design. That is important, he said, because the finished product will be a memorial to many people, from those who flew the first fragile military biplanes to today’s more diverse and technologically oriented force.

“ We have to represent not only today’s Air Force but our predecessors and our future force,” said Grillo.

Peter Grier, a Washington, D.C., editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Sensational Signal,” appeared in the February issue.