Memorial Day and Military Memorials

Monday is Memorial Day in the United States. It is the national holiday when Americans honor the military men and women who died in battle. Visitors to Washington, DC, can see major memorials to these men and women. I'm Phoebe Zimmermann. And I'm Steve Ember. The story of these memorials is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

That music is called "Taps." It is played at military funerals to honor soldiers who have died. The sound of "Taps" is heard at cemeteries throughout the United States as America honors its war dead.

The Memorial Day holiday started in eighteen-sixty-eight. The purpose was to honor soldiers killed during the Civil War between America's Northern and Southern states. Back then, the holiday was called Decoration Day. People used flowers and ribbons to decorate the burial places of those killed during the war. Today, Memorial Day honors the men and women who died in all of America's wars.

The first yearly observance of Memorial Day was at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. The cemetery is across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. It is the largest and most famous national burial place in the United States. It covers more than two-hundred hectares of rolling hills.

Up and down the hills are lines of simple white stones marking the graves. These are the burial places of more than two-hundred-thousand men and women who served in the military, and members of their families. Those laid to rest at Arlington include military and political leaders, cabinet officers and Supreme Court judges. Not all served in the military; some were buried there as an honor.

Only two American presidents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. One is William Howard Taft. He was president in the early nineteen-hundreds. The other is John Kennedy. He was president in the early nineteen-sixties. He was murdered during his first term in office. A memorial flame burns at President Kennedy's burial place. More people have visited his grave than any other in the United States.

Memorial Day ceremonies also are being held at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was the idea of Jan Scruggs. Mr. Scruggs fought in Vietnam. After the war, which ended in nineteen-seventy-five, he was deeply troubled. He and others felt that American soldiers killed in Vietnam had been forgotten. So, he organized efforts to build a monument to honor them. He wanted to put on the monument the name of every American who died or was missing in the Vietnam War.

In nineteen-eighty, a group of former soldiers announced a national competition. The veterans group invited American artists to create a memorial to help unite the nation after the Vietnam War had divided it. Eight famous designers and artists were the judges. They judged more than one-thousand-four-hundred designs. They chose the design of Maya Lin. Ms. Lin was twenty-one years old. She was studying architecture at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. She designed a memorial made of two black stone walls. The memorial opened in nineteen-eighty-two.

The two black stone walls are set into the earth. They are about seventy-six meters long. They form a wide letter V. As you walk down into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the walls rise above you. Cut into the walls are the names of more than fifty-eight-thousand Americans who died or are still missing. The names are listed in the order that the soldiers died. The earliest are from the late nineteen-fifties. Those who died together are remembered together. Nearby is a statue of three soldiers. They seem to be looking at the wall of names.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has become one of the most-visited places in Washington. Every year about one-and-a-half million people visit. People who go there experience powerful emotions. Many say it has become almost a holy place.

Almost any time of day, you can see people looking at the name of a family member or a friend who died in Vietnam. Some reach out and touch the name. Some put a piece of paper over it. They rub the paper with a pencil so the name on the wall appears on the paper. In this way, they are able to take part of the memorial home with them.

After the success of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, veterans of the Korean War pressed for a memorial of their own. Congress approved the idea. In July nineteen-ninety-five, the Korean War Veterans Memorial opened. It is near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It honors the men and women who served -- and those who died -- in the Korean War from nineteen-fifty to nineteen-fifty-three.

The Korean War has been called "the last foot soldier's war." So, the memorial includes a series of nineteen statues of soldiers, walking. Artist Frank Gaylord created the statues from steel. Each is more than two meters tall. The soldiers appear to be moving up a hill toward a large American flag.

The Korean War Veterans Memorial has several parts. On one side of the memorial is a stone walkway. It shows the names of the twenty-two countries that sent troops to serve in Korea under the United Nations command. On the other side is a shiny stone wall. It shows images of more than two-thousand-four-hundred support troops. These include nurses, cooks and truck drivers. The faces were reproduced from photographs taken during the war.

The last part of the memorial is the Pool of Remembrance. This round pool shows the number of American and United Nations forces who died, or who were wounded, captured, or missing in the war. The number totals more than two-million. Cut into the wall above the pool is the simple yet powerful message: "Freedom is not free."

Work has begun on a National World War Two Memorial in Washington. But for now the newest war memorial in the capital area has a long name. It is called the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. It is very different from the other memorials. It recognizes the service of all the women who have taken part in the nation's wars. More than two-million women have served, or currently serve, in the American military forces. President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in nineteen-eighty-six to honor women in the military.

A retired Air Force general, Wilma Vaught, was chosen to lead the effort to build the memorial. The memorial took eleven years to build. It cost twenty-two million dollars.

The women's military memorial opened in October nineteen-ninety-seven. It is near the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Michael Manfredi and Marion Gail Weiss designed the women's memorial. It is a place of glass, water and light. The memorial has a large wall that is shaped in a half-circle. In front of the memorial, two-hundred jets of water meet in a pool. The designers say this fountain celebrates the combined strength of many individuals.

Inside the memorial, the stories of women in wartime are cut into glass panels. The memorial also has information about military women on a computer. It includes names, pictures, service records and personal statements of about two-hundred-fifty-thousand military women.

General Vaught said it was important for women in the military to be honored because their efforts have not been recognized. She said the Women in Military Service for America Memorial will help tell a story that has never been told before.

This program was written by Shelley Gollust and Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Phoebe Zimmermann. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.