"It is amazing," said Elbridge Bartley of Sikeston, the first local World War II veteran to visit the Mall's latest addition. "That is one beautiful memorial - long, long overdue but it was worth waiting for, I guess."
The first national memorial dedicated to all who served during the Second World War, the National World War II Memorial opened for public viewing on April 29, according to the memorial's Web site. The Memorial Day formal dedication ceremony is scheduled for May 29.
This was Bartley's second visit to the nation's capital. "I was there during the war to be interviewed by the Methodist Commission on Chaplains," he recalled. "And I hadn't been back since."
Retiring as a lieutenant commander, Bartley served in the Pacific Theater during the war and also had occupation duty in Japan.
He had joined the U.S. Navy hoping to be assigned to a ship but ended up serving with the 2nd Marine Division as the Marines use Navy chaplains. Having served with them, however, Bartley has nothing but praise to offer: "They deserve every accolade they get."
Bartley said he was impressed by the "immensity" of the memorial, describing it as being larger than all the other U.S. war memorials combined. "This is the size of football field or larger," he said, looking over a map of the memorial.
"I think the symbolism of this whole thing is remarkable," Bartley said. "Water plays a big, big part in this thing."
The Washington Memorial's reflecting pool water is now connected to the new memorial: "It comes tumbling down into a pool by the Freedom Wall," Bartley said. "There are 4,000 gold stars representing the more than 400,000 Americans that perished during the war."
The memorial is "a lot more than just the Freedom Wall," he said.
In placing 56 monuments representing the states, territories and the District of Columbia, designers used a "unique way of not doing it alphabetically," Bartley said, explaining they were set in the order in which they entered the union, alternating between the two pavilions.
"You have to go look for your state," Bartley said. "I had to look awhile to find it." Having served in the Pacific Theater, Bartley started at the Pacific pavilion and finally found Missouri about three monuments from the Atlantic pavilion.
At the base of the pavilions are semi-circular water displays which list on their granite bases key battles in their respective theaters, and inside each is a replica of the Victory Medal embedded in the floor, although Bartley didn't actually see them. "I'm sorry that I didn't go in," he said with what appeared to be the only regret related to the experience.
Bartley's visit was as part of a large group of mostly Kentucky veterans and their spouses who traveled to the mall and back May 1-6, touring the memorial May 4. "I would never have been able to make this trip on my own," Bartley said.
He found out about the opportunity to go from a Paducah television news station's segment on what was at that time an upcoming trip which included an invitation to any World War II veteran within the broadcast area.
"I was the only Missourian to go on this trip thought up by the Kentuckians," Bartley said. "It was an all-expense-paid trip. They raised over $400,000 to pay for the buses, motels and most of the meals." Wal-Mart, Ryans and other local merchants there "just loaded us up with fruit, snacks and bottled water for the trip," he said.
A total of 17 buses were booked, with the number of veterans and veteran wives being "somewhere between 500 and 600," according to Bartley. Pick-up stations were in several Kentucky cites. "I got to ride in the lead all the way," Bartley said, having caught his ride in Paducah.
At 800 miles taking about one and a half days each way, it was a long, hard bus ride, but Bartley said his visit to the memorial was definitely enhanced by being part of the group.
"We were constantly sharing war stories and experiences that we had," he said.
Also, Bartley noted "the impact that we made: we were the first unit anywhere in the country to make this sort of trip."
Veteran organizations like the local Veterans of Foreign Wars along the way contributed to "feed the whole gang for the evening meal," he said.
Bartley said that such a huge group was able to make the trip "without any major difficulties is mind boggling."
The trip's organizer, however, was an individual who was honored Saturday when Wickliffe, Ky., officials proclaimed it "Sandy Hart Day" there.
"Sandy was the driving force," Bartley said, describing her as "a dedicated, patriotic citizen."
While it was an unforgettable positive experience, for Bartley it could have been just a bit better: "From a personal point of view, I really wish that my brother John, who was three years younger than me and a Navy pilot, could have been with me on this trip," he said, explaining his sibling passed away a few years ago. "He and I would have had a ball together on this trip."