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Kilroy Is Here--Can You Find Him?

Nicely hidden in the dour, pretentious, bombastic architecture that is the National World War II Memorial on the Mall is a delightful bit of whimsy that visitors are just beginning to discover.

Visitors to the memorial have slowly been finding their way to the back, where the famous Kilroy graffiti has been etched into the stone as a clever gem for those in the know to discover.

To read about the origins of the legend of James J. Kilroy, the WW2 shipyard inspector whose graffiti became a bonding symbol for a generation of Americans, click here.

And if you want to see the memorial's Kilroy for yourself, here's a hint: There's a small, walled-off service area at the back of the memorial (Lincoln Memorial side) where the ground is made of metal grating. If you scan the back wall of the memorial near there, you'll find what you're looking for.

I still can't stand the thing and what it has done to the majestic views on the Mall, but at least there's now evidence that someone involved in the creation of the memorial had a puckish sensibility, and perhaps most amazing of all, the organizers of the new landmark managed to keep this bit out of the news throughout the endless hyping that accompanied the opening of the memorial.

kilroy.bmp The hidden Kilroy reference on the WWII Memorial

By Marc Fisher |  May 2, 2006; 7:39 AM ET
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Funny. Last time I was at the WWII Memorial I looked at the Lincoln and the Washington monuments and thought it fit perfectly. You know there is a hill to the Washington - so no line of sight. And it is in a low spot to keep the line to the Lincoln. I am afraid that I just don't get your point.

At the time it was under construction, so many vets were dying that I thought it only mean to delay it longer. My uncle who was with the rangers at D Day missed it.

Perhaps I missed the esthetics of it all.

Best wishes,

Gary Masters

Posted by: Gary Masters | May 2, 2006 9:29 AM

Although well deserved, the WWII is ill conceived and ugly. Its laundry list of battles is dry and uninformative. The symbolic representation of casualties is obscure. The style is retro and not in a nice way. I cannot imagine this memorial ever being embraced the way the Vietnam wall has been, with flowers and tributes of all kinds.

This war was a global conflict against truly evil domination and aggression, in which our entire nation joined to pool resources and share sacrifices. This memorial conveys none of that.

Posted by: kuosawaguy | May 2, 2006 10:04 AM

The fountains are nice....but that's about it.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 2, 2006 10:31 AM

I sometimes draw the Kilroy image when I'm bored at work or on a chalk board before a team meeting. My brother taught me how to draw it when I was very young (I'm 41 and female). It's an image that has been ingrained in me for years. The image has always amused me as it probably did for the soldiers who came across it. Thank you, Marc.

Posted by: WB | May 2, 2006 10:34 AM

What I hate is what it has done for traffic, with everyone saying "oh, it's ok to drop people off on tiny 17th Street--I'll just be a minute" and cabs hovering back and forth waiting for visitors to enter or exit.

That the bus area on the side is not open for taxi cab drop off and pick up is a crime and a monster traffic headache.

Posted by: PenguinSix | May 2, 2006 11:28 AM

You are correct. The monument is out of scale for the site as well as ugly. The most interesting thing about it , however, is watching the people who come there, especially those of the WWII generation. There are smiles about good times remembered, tears for friends now gone, wistful looks about how long ago that war was, a solemnity about what happened and why and finally an acknowledgement that before long these same visitors will be gone as well.

Posted by: jmsbh | May 2, 2006 11:57 AM

People that criticize(whine about) the WWII memorial almost always have a political motive in mind. Unfortunately, it does not meet their standards for political correctness. They usually have no problem with the Vietnam Memorial, but do not honor the generation (no matter how great the sacrifice) against which they grew up in rebellion.

The 400 gold stars at the WWII memorial, in honor of the 400,000+ Americans that lost their lives, can only begin to remind us of the breadth and depth of the efforts and sacrifice of a generation of Americans.

As deep and honorable as the sacrifices that were made during Vietnam and Korea, they are dwarfed by the heroic efforts of the WWII generation of Americans (and allies). I doubt we will ever see a resolve and commitment such as that from this country ever again.

Just listen to the whining from so many of the current generation arising from the war on terror. Marc Fisher is evidence of the current spineless approach to meeting today's challenges - and he finds plenty of friends at the Post.

My hat is off to the brilliance of the WWII memorial - it has become a centerpiece to the mall, for many future generations to enjoy. May it proudly honor a great generation of Americans.

Posted by: Bruce A. Dembroski | May 2, 2006 12:44 PM

Mr. Demboski, you are incorrect. Your criticisms of younger generations are, in fact, countered by some of the comments above.

Consider, for instance, kurosawaguy, who said: This war was a global conflict against truly evil domination and aggression, in which our entire nation joined to pool resources and share sacrifices. This memorial conveys none of that.

I think kurosawaguy's comments are right on target. The tall slabs that denote the states seem perfectly irrelevant to anything about the war. If anything, the domestic war effort was about people pulling together regardless of where they came from, and people in the military encountered and developed lifelong attachments to people from other states that they would never have met but for their military service. WW II is sometimes described as our first truly national experience.

Beyond the issue of defining national contributions to the war effort in terms of states, the memorial conveys nothing of the scale of the conflict, the nature of our adversaries, or the character of the leaders--both military and civilian--who led the Allied Forces to victory.

My father is one of the surviving WW II vets--an outstanding example of the men who went to war and came home to build the country. Not only do I love him in the way a daughter might, but I respect him greatly. To me, it's sad that this unappealing memorial is what we have constructed to honor his service and that of the "Army buddies" with whom he shared the deep friendships that come of common hardships.

You are, quite simply, wrong to think that people who criticize this memorial--or other things about our nation and its policies--don't love America.

Posted by: THS | May 2, 2006 12:58 PM

Kilroy is a wonderful touch and right on target.

WWII deserved a memorial and it deserved to be on the Mall, but that thing would have made Albert Speer proud. It is hideous, cold, out of scale, and inappropriate in every way. Kilroy was there. And he left.

Posted by: Meridian | May 2, 2006 1:22 PM

How you could have a problem with a grand monument to the men and women who saved the world is utterly beyond me.

Posted by: Scott Pettis | May 2, 2006 1:48 PM

I had never heard the legend of Kilroy - Thank you for sharing!

As for the monument, it's icky. It's definately a war that needs to be remembered for oh so many reasons, but the monument is just wrong. The Vietnam memorial is so strickingly simple that it can't be anything but powerful. The WWII tried too hard and lost some of ability to inspire awe. There's a somber air about when you visit the Vietnam memorial, not so at the WWII one with too many children running crazy and jumping around like children are apt to do. Perhaps if the memorial went up much sooner after WWII, there would have been more vets around to take their families there and establish that sense of quiet remembrance that it lacks having gone up too many years after such an earth changing event.

Posted by: J | May 2, 2006 1:56 PM

To steal a quote from a friend, "the memorial represents the worst of triumphalist architecture." In many ways it resembles more the regimes we defeated and less the Willies and Joes who fought (and the Rosie's who fought on the homefront).

This is a memorial as designed for Patton - not as it should be designed for the common men and women who left their workaday lives to valiantly fight the axis and then returned quietly to those lives at the war's end.

Posted by: Tim Johnson | May 2, 2006 2:05 PM

For a guy who is so right about the National Indian museum--about what a disaster it is, from concept to completion--how can you be so wrong about the lovely and perfectly integrated WWII Memorial?

The WWII Memorial was designed for the veterans. Not for the post-modernists among us. The vets love it, overwhelmingly.

Everybody in this town is an architecture critic. It is a fast, lazy route to faux intellectualism. So, once again: Fisher is right when I agree with him. He is just a lazy bore when I don't. Funny how that works, eh?

Posted by: FisherWatch | May 2, 2006 2:35 PM

My father, a veteran of Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, and Guadalcanal, among others, LOVED the memorial...his opinion is the only one that counts.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | May 2, 2006 2:42 PM

I just took a look at Fisher's column from 2004, objecting to the WWII Memorial. His first point: It's placement interrupts pro-abortion marches! Just amazing. I am sure with a crack like that he is a hero to his lefty colleagues. Gross. Just gross.

Posted by: FisherWatch II | May 2, 2006 2:42 PM

Where do people get this stuff? Maybe FisherWatch II "looked at" Marc's May 2004 column, but he or she apparently didn't *read* it. For those who lack access to the column, the *fourth paragraph* (nowhere near "the first point") says, "the damage this installation has done to the nation's ability to express its democratic emotions is worse than any critic had imagined. Think of last month's abortion-rights gathering. The photos showed a massive crowd stretching from the Washington Monument to the Capitol -- a jarring change from the usual vista: facing the Great Emancipator with the symbol of the Father of Our Country watching our backs.

"By digging the World War II Memorial into the space between Lincoln and Washington, the forces that paid for this interruption of the Mall have ensured that we will no longer see masses of Americans celebrating or protesting at Lincoln's feet. The empowering walk from George to Abe is no more."

That's not a statement about abortion marches, for goodness' sake! It's a statement about the nation's ability to express itself.

FisherWatch II's distortion of what Marc wrote is gross. Just gross.

Posted by: jaded | May 2, 2006 3:30 PM

I was very puzzled when I discovered the Kilroy etching sometime in February, and couldn't make any sense of it. Thanks for the information that Kilroy was a shipyard inspector!
Being from Europe (where you have a monument at every other corner...) I was never as touched as by the 'Wall' - what a great concept! The WWII monument, however, resembles much of the bombast and ill-conceived heroism of many (old) European monuments. What a great chance for an architecture playing with today's perceptions and artistic possibilities has been passed up with this!

Posted by: flo | May 2, 2006 3:54 PM

Thanks for the solid defense, Jaded. Much appreciated. But however the memorial strikes you aesthetically, even if you find it deeply moving, the two primary objections still stand:

1) Long after Congress and most other folks decided that the Mall was a finished work of art and history, we're still mucking with it. Each new addition steals from the power and importance of the memorials and vistas already there. And now that we're living through an era of balkanized history, the temptation to litter the Mall with memorials to every group that ever set foot on this continent becomes ever stronger. All quibbling about lines of sight aside, the fact is that the open vista from Washington to Lincoln is now gone forever.

2) In about 10, 20 years tops, the WWII Memorial will be about as meaningful as the World War I Memorial tucked behind the Korean War memorial on the Mall. Which is to say the next generation won't have a clue what The Big One was about or why anyone cared or what this is doing smack dab in the middle of the Mall. A memorial ought to speak to those who lived through the period in question, but it must also speak to those who are yet to come. The best piece of monumental Washington do that with exquisite grace and power: the Jefferson, the Lincoln, the Vietnam Wall. I defy you to explain how the various elements of the WWII Memorial tell future generations anything beyond this: There was a war, a big one. Thanks for coming.

Posted by: Fisher | May 2, 2006 3:59 PM

Way cool. As is the WWII Memorial in my opinion. I know a bunch of people in this town objected but it was the right thing to do, and quite frankly the right place to do it. The Vietnam Wall might be the more popular monument but it is more in line with the politics of that war and today's generation. The WWII Memorial is more of a classic work that is reflective of a class group of men and women that did rise above the ordinary to become something more than special.

Posted by: TC the Terrible | May 2, 2006 4:40 PM

I agree with the person who said that this is a monument to Patton and not the everyday people, which is so ridiculous since those who wanted the monument where it is on the Mall argued for it for those individuals. I think the argument that it should be put up before the last of the generation dies is bogus. I'm only 33, my parents are of the Vietnam generation and none of my grandparents fought in WWII, but I still have family stories and memories that will be passed down to the next generation about that time. That generation will not be forgotten any more than the generation of the founding fathers or of the Civil War, but it is sad that what we honor them with looks like a monument verion of propaganda.

Posted by: klh | May 2, 2006 5:14 PM

I grok Kilroy.

Posted by: Richard Katz | May 2, 2006 5:20 PM

FisherWatch II:
I grok Mark.
He is funny and outrageous.

Posted by: Richard Katz | May 2, 2006 5:23 PM

ummmmm.......Marc with a c, that is.

Posted by: Richard Katz | May 2, 2006 5:25 PM

I mean no disrespect to the WWII vets -- my father was one -- but I have to take issue with the idea that the memorial was built primarily for them, and that their approval is what really counts.

Memorials, by definition, are erected in memory of the dead. Their value is for us, the living, and generations to come who will not have known them, or the vets who survived, personally. Its intent is to honor their memory, capture the spirit of their lives and times, and educate future generations about why they sacrificed their lives and why, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, our job is to rededicate ourselves to the purposes for which they fought.

I think the current memorial fails on most of these counts, and that its architecture's echo of fascist styles (my friend calls it the Mussolini Memorial) is uniquely inappropriate. Of course the vets love it -- they're grateful that the nation has honored them and would be churlish to say otherwise. But it was a terribly missed opportunity that we and later generations will have to live with a long time.

I have thought for quite some time, given the sprawling nature of the FDR Memorial (which, other than its excessive size, I love) and the dedication of much of it both to the common man and to WWII themes, that the two Memorials might profitably have been if not combined at least jointly sited. But it was not to be.

Posted by: Memorial | May 2, 2006 6:34 PM

Very likely, no one will see this comment, as this thread is long since dead, but, just in case, I want to say that Memorial's comment above is lovely. Insightful, important, and well said.

Posted by: THS | May 4, 2006 1:47 AM

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