Carved in stone
Guilderland author Joseph Persico wrote these 59 words that set the stage for the new World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
By Melissa Hale-Spencer, The Enterprise
Veterans of World War II gathered Friday afternoon at the Home Front Café, in Altamont, to meet the author of words carved in stone to memorialize their war.
Joseph Persico described his words as "a kind of poetry in granite."
A one-time speech writer for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and the author of 10 books, Persico said these words of his would last the longest.
The Guilderland author came up with two inscriptions for the new World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Seven of his words are inscribed underneath the monument's gold stars: 4,000 stars, each one standing for 100 Americans killed in the war: "Here we mark the price of freedom."
"I must have come up with 50 possible versions," Persico told The Enterprise.
"Especially on the field of gold stars representing all the casualties," he said, "I wanted something simple that expressed the idea of sacrifice for a positive purpose, not just sacrifice like Vietnam."
As a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission, Persico said, "We had been working for months and months and months. Everyone finally agreed on the inscriptions from World War II figures. "
These included words from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur, among others.
"We needed one at the entrance that would be fresh and then one for the field of stars," he said.
Persico had been nominated to the commission by Colin Powell whose autobiography he had worked on. He was the only writer on the commission, he said, and so the other members looked to him.
His second inscription, 59 words, carved in a horizontal granite slab facing the pillars surrounding the plaza, states, in capital letters:
"Here in the presence of Washington and Lincoln, one the eighteenth century father and the other the nineteenth century preserver of our nation, we honor those twentieth century Americans who took up the struggle during the second World War and made the sacrifices to perpetuate the gift our forefathers entrusted to us: a nation conceived in liberty and justice."
"I tried to take advantage of the site since the memorial was to be located between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial," Persico said. He read other inscriptions to get ideas of what to do and what not to do, he said.
"Some of them are too lugubrious," said Persico.
Asked if these words were the hardest he had written, Persico said, "No, but they were the most satisfying words I ever wrote. When all of my other 10 books are forgotten, I expect these words will be remembered."
"We saved the world"
Cindy Pollard, who owns the Home Front, has decorated the café to look like her mother's kitchen. Pictures of Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour hang on the wall and the sound of swing often fills the air.
Pollard has, over the years, invited scores of schoolchildren to come to her place and listen to local veterans of World War II tell of their experiences.
One of those veterans is Ed Cowley, an Altamont artist and retired professor who is a friend of both Pollard and Persico. He arranged for Friday's get-to-gether.
Before Persico arrived, several of the veterans talked to The Enterprise about their service and what the new war monument means to them. Bob Shedd of New Scotland, who was a Marine at Guadalcanal and New Britain, earned five battle stars during the war.
"I have mixed feelings," said Shedd about the monument.
"I don't," countered Frank Wallace, who served in the Army's 101st Division. "Every other war had a monument down there. It's a very beautiful structure."
Wallace said of World War II veterans, "We're dying at the rate of 1,500 a day and there needed to be something to memorialize what we did. We saved the world. Hitler and Stalin were united...They'd have run rampant over everyone."
Wallace pinched his thumb and forefinger closely together and said, "England was that close to going under."
He is frustrated by how quickly World War II has been forgotten. Wallace recently had knee surgery. A technician was taking his blood in the hospital, he said, and reviewed a report from the VA hospital.
"She asked if I was a Vietnam veteran," he reported. "I said, "No 'World War II.' She repeated Vietnam again. She didn't know anything about World War II. It's an indictment of our educational system."
Wallace, who was stationed in Europe, didn't want to talk about his war experiences. He said, "I'd like to tell you it was all worth-while but I don't believe it."
Shedd, who visited Washington a couple of weeks ago, said he was most taken with the Korean monument.
Rather than monolithic slabs of stone in a formal arrangement like the World War II memorial, the Korean memorial "is a bunch of men with ponchos," said Shedd.
Shedd didn't remember the inscriptions at the World War II memorial but found the gold stars impressive. "Each represented 100 Americans that were killed. The Russians lost 40 million, think of that," he said, fathoming how many stars a monument for the Russians would have.
"I did have one interesting experience there," Shedd went on. "They had these bronze pictures...An older lady was there with a young blind couple, showing them one of the pictures.
"I said, "That's what I did.' Men were coming out of a landing craft," said Shedd, who had been a rifleman. "I took the girl's hand and said, "That's his bed roll; that's his canteen.'
"She didn't know what a canteen was. I said, "His water bottle,' and she got it."
Shedd said he is no longer haunted by the war. "Years ago," he said, "I'd be dreaming and wake up with a whole bunch of Japs chasing me, but that hasn't happened in a long time."
Ken and Margaret Weisl both served during World War II. Ken Weisl, in the 8th Air Force, volunteered for service after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; he was an aerial gunner who flew B-17's.
He flew 33 missions and, when asked for details, said, "One mission was as bad as the next."
He added, "You never got too friendly with other crews. It was here today, gone tomorrow. The life span was three missions. After that, you were on borrowed time."
Margaret Weisl, who is English, was in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. "We drove lorries, managed anti-aircraft guns, clerked in offices, and did radar. I was in radar," she said.
The two were stationed within three miles of each other and met in a pub. They married 37 years later, after she was widowed and he became a widower. The Weisls have seen the monument only in pictures but are pleased with it. On hearing the words Persico came up with for his inscriptions, Margaret Weisl said, "Those are excellent."
"It's a tribute, especially to those that gave their lives," she said. "It's a reminder for the generation to follow of what went on before their time," said her husband.
"Too late" Harry Sembrat, with the 17th Airborne Division, is featured in a gritty, full-page black-and-white photograph in the April 9, 1945 Life magazine. He is dangling with his parachute caught in a tree in the midst of wartorn Europe.
"I jumped out of a C46," he recalled on Friday, describing the event as vividly as if it were yesterday. His friend Michael O'Connor was caught in the same tree, he said.
"I got him down first," said Sembrat.
Later, as Sembrat, O'Connor, and two others were crossing a field, he said, "A shot went off. We all hit the ground."
The men called to each other. There was no reply from O'Connor.
"We turned him over," said Sembrat. "He got it right between the eyes...We put a tourniquet on."
O'Connor died two days later, he said.
Sembrat, overcome with emotion, was silent for a moment and then said the memorial in Washington, was "too late."
"All the fellows that fought, including my two brothers, who died in 1990, it's too late for them," he said.
Sembrat's wife of 54 years, Nadia Sembrat, also served during the war, as a nurse stateside.
She worked on a hospital train, transporting wounded soldiers from Staten Island to various medical facilities.
She described the bunks on the train for wounded men, stacked three high. The memorial in Washington, she said, means a lot to her. "I cry," said Nadia Sembrat. "I'm very sentimental. When I think of the enormity of it, I get very emotional."
Sembrat, who lives in Voorheesville, said she is looking forward to visiting the monument.
Building a monument
Pollard placed her hands on Persico's shoulders and warmly welcomed him and his wife, Sylvia, to her restaurant. The crowd of about 30 quieted to hear her speak.
"You know how hard we, in our community, have worked for the World War II Memorial," she said.
Pollard headed a local council that raised $18,000 for the monument. She was initially put off by literature from monument fundraisers, suggesting donations ranging from $20 to $1,000 and had said four years ago, "You're missing out on the change and dollar bills people can afford."
By raising funds through such events as an old-fashioned canteen, Pollard recreated the sense of community, of people pulling together for a good cause, that she had felt as a child during World War II.
Friday, she read for the group the words Persico had written and concluded, "I love the words. I feel as a person, an American, he made me feel good with these words."
Pollard hugged the tall white-haired writer as the group ap-plauded. Persico then gave a brief history of the monument.
The memorial took root, he said, in 1981 when a Democratic congress-woman from Ohio talked to a veteran who had seen combat at Normandy.
"He said, 'You've got a monument to Vietnam. Why not have one on World War II?'...She introduced legislation...But it wasn't until seven years later, a bill was passed by both houses and signed by President Clinton." Once the legislation was en-acted, a number of court challenges were launched, raising objections from the environmental to the aesthetic. Over 400 architects competed to design the memorial. The winner was Friedrich St. Florian.
His design consists of columns and arches surrounding a plaza. The two main memorial arches are meant to celebrate victory in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, and pillars surrounding the plaza represent the 56 individual states and territories that comprised the United States during World War II. Persico said he asked St. Florian, "Doesn't it strike you as a lit-tle odd the memorial is designed by a guy who grew up essen-tially in what was the Third Reich?"
Bob Dole chaired a memorial fund-raising campaign; over $180 million was raised, said Persico.
"Our gratitude has to go to people like your Cindy Pollard who raised $18,000 from this small community," he said.
Construction on the monument began in 2002 and it was dedicated in an elaborate ceremony, attended by hundreds of thousands, this past Memorial Day.
Some of the World War II veterans who attended were in "great shape - they were jitter-bugging," said Persico, while "others were using walkers or were in wheelchairs." "Just as dead"
After Persico opened the floor to questions, he was asked, "How does it feel to have your words chiseled in stone?"
"It's a little daunting," he said. "Some day, long after I'm gone and my children and grandchildren are gone, those words will be there."
The conversation between the veterans and the author took on a philosophical tone as they discussed war and its monuments.
Persico said he was sometimes asked why it took so long, why the national memorial wasn't built until more than a half-century after the war.
"There was no real pressure from the World War II generation to do it," he said. "The Vietnam veterans had suffered and hadn't been recognized. They formed a pressure group," he said. "For a while after Vietnam, there was a backing off of the military...Now the military is highly regarded again."
World War II veterans and Korean veterans and some Vietnam veterans took their service as part of their duty, said George Pratt, Altamont's retired police chief. "They didn't require a pat on the back," Pratt said as others applauded.
"Unfortunately, some Vietnam veterans have been torpedoed by their government. Their bureaucratic government lost the war. They didn't lose the war," Pratt said.
Tillie Relyea, who is active in the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, said her husband fought in Korea.
She said of Korean War veterans, "They kept it inside." World War II veterans talked about their war, she said. "The Vietnam veterans came back and that's all they did was complain. My husband didn't tell me what happened there [in Korea] until he was diagnosed with cancer," said Relyea.
"Korea was the forgotten war," said Persico.
Persico, who served during the Korean war, said he found the monument to that war - one depicting people - "the most powerful."
Don Kappes said his father, who fought in a world war, had hoped his seven sons wouldn't have to go to war.
"Two of us had to - in Vietnam," Kappes said. "They were always called child killers and that's why they came back with bitterness," he said. "There were no victory parades," said Persico.
"We came back as baby killers," said Kappes, "and that's the worst anyone could call me."
Darlene Stanton, who has spearheaded a drive to send care packages to soldiers now serving in Iraq, said that Vietnam veterans would tell her, "You didn't help us." The point, she said, was to avoid repeating the bitterness and divisiveness.
Persico described a visit that he and his wife had made to the cemeteries at Normandy, where some of the fiercest fighting of World War II had taken place.
"They are so serene," he said. "I was struck with how tranquil they are compared to the way these men died."
Persico described the American cemetery where the white Christian crosses, row on row, are uplifting. In contrast, the grave markers in the German cemetery are "like Maltese crosses; black, thick," he said.
"These men are just as dead...Our men," he said, "died for a cause and victory. What did these guys die for? Hitler and Nazis."
Pollard concluded the session, before the Persicos stayed on to eat with their hosts, by pointing out the American flag on the back wall of the restaurant.
Seven Orsini brothers had left Altamont to fight in World War II. One of them created the flag while in a prisoner-of-war camp; it sustained him, and was recently restored.
Persico responded by telling of a symbol that was important to him. "I have in my office at home one of those familiar banners," he said, describing the pieces of cloth people would hang in their homes representing those who had gone to war; a blue star for each live soldier, a gold star for each one who had died.
Persico's banner has five blue stars on it; one for each of his father's brothers. During World War II, it had hung in the family's Gloversville home.
"That was the largest number of stars on anybody's flag there," he said. Just like the Orsini brothers, his father's brothers all came home.
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