American Legion volunteers gathered Sunday at a neglected marble temple on the National Mall to commemorate veterans of World War I, at a site they hope will soon be a national memorial.
The structure from the 1930s was dedicated as a tribute to local troops from the District of Columbia who served in what was called the "Great War." Now, a campaign to turn the site into a national memorial continues to be led by the last living U.S. veteran of WWI, 109-year-old Frank Buckles.
Although the old soldier couldn't make it to Sunday's 75th commemoration, the ceremonies included remarks from National Park Service officials about a $7 million renovation plan scheduled to begin soon.
"We have been wanting for decades to make this look better, and happily now we have the federal funding by which to do it," said Michael Kelly, a park ranger for the National Park Service.
Those involved in efforts to create a national WWI memorial say Buckles' goal is getting closer.
Under compromise Senate legislation in discussion, Congress would be asked to grant "national" status to both the National Mall site and the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
"After a few months of going back and forth with the Kansas City people, we have arrived at what seems to be a very simple, and we think appropriate, compromise solution, which is essentially that both sites have national status, as a tribute to all the nation's dead of World War I," said Edwin Fountain, an official with the World War I Memorial Foundation.
Advocates for both proposed memorials believe they deserve national status for a variety of reasons that include boosting the strength of fund-raising appeals.
Although the name of the Liberty Memorial makes no direct reference to WWI, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, said it was dedicated in 1924 as "the national World War I monument, not for Kansas City, Missouri, but for the entire nation." The Liberty Memorial site includes the National World War I Museum.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, had countered that a national memorial should be located in the national capital.
"I realize others have their views, but this, this is Washington, D.C.," Rockefeller said in support of the D.C. Memorial at a congressional hearing last year.
Kelly echoed similar sentiment. "This memorial is by far one of the more essential in American history," said Kelly.
Buckles has bipartisan support among senators pushing for the Washington location. Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, told the same hearing last year that "we have what we call the Memorial Triangle on the National Mall today - World War II, Korea, Vietnam (memorials) - and so I think it's fitting that all the great wars of the 20th Century have their place on the National Mall." Thune, Rockefeller and Senator Jim Webb, D-Virginia, have introduced a bill that Fountain hopes will pass before the summer recess.
Speaking to the gathered crowd Sunday, Fountain said, "It is my great hope that next year, if I'm invited back to speak to you all again, I'll be able to report that we have passed the Frank W. Buckles World War I Memorial Act."
Buckles joined the U.S. Army as a teenager and rose to the rank of corporal. His assignments included driving an ambulance in Europe. In recent years, he has traveled from his West Virginia home to Washington several times to make his appeal that his comrades deserve national recognition alongside other war memorials in the nation's capital.