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A Step Forward for a World War I Memorial in D.C.

Bayonet practice at Camp Bowie in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1918. Bayonet practice at Camp Bowie in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1918. Flickr user The U.S. National Archives

Just in time for Memorial Day, the congressionally chartered U.S. World War I Centennial Commission on Thursday opened an international competition for the design of a planned expansion of Washington commemorations of the Great War.

The site? Pershing Park, on Pennsylvania Ave. Northwest, right across from the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. The park commemorates the career of Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing.

Often called the “Forgotten War,” World War I (1914-18) drew U.S. forces to Europe only for the final five months. But an astonishing 116,516 American “doughboys” were killed, and another 200,000 wounded. That made the casualty rate greater than World War II’s.

“World War I simply does not exist in the American consciousness,” said commission Vice Chairman Edwin Fountain at the National Press Club. That’s why his group is coordinating with volunteers nationwide on education programs (goal: reaching 10 million students) and commemorations to bring “renewed attention to local World War I memorials around the country.”

For years efforts were made to the rededicate the District of Columbia’s own World War I memorial (built near the Tidal Basin in 1931), but to no avail. Getting directly on the National Mall along with the Vietnam war, Korean war and World War II memorials also ran into the familiar ethos that “the Mall is complete.”

So the Pershing site, for planners, was “the next best thing” when Congress gave the okay last December in the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.  The commission's chairman, retired Col. Robert Dalessandro, offered “all due respect” to the existing World War I museum and memorial in Kansas City, Mo. “It’s a fine memorial, but Kansas City doesn’t get the visitation Washington does,” he said.

The high-powered 501(c)3, which must raise all the money privately, has members appointed by the president, leaders of Congress, and the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the National World War I Museum.

It’s getting help from advisers from the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Secret Service and National Park Service. Its honorary chairs are former presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Carter, with commission ex-officio members including the Archivist of the United States, the Librarian of Congress, the administrator of the General Services Administration and the secretaries of Education, State, Veterans Affairs and the Smithsonian Institution.

Architects and landscape professionals must submit concepts by July 1, 2015, in time for juries to pick one and for the commission to complete construction for the 100th anniversary of what Americans used to Call Armistice Day -- Nov. 11, 2018. The final two concepts will get a $25,000 cash prize.

(Image via Flickr user The U.S. National Archives)

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books, and organizational media strategies.

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