Simple words, enduring honor
Guilderland author's messages are inscribed on new memorial

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
Saturday, May 29, 2004

"Here we mark the price of freedom."

Those seven simple words may be the most important ones Joseph Persico has ever written.

The Guilderland author's declarative sentence is etched into an 18-foot-long granite slab of the National World War II Memorial, which will be dedicated in Washington, D.C., today.

The words introduce the Freedom Wall at the Field of Gold Stars, where 4,000 gold stars are attached to a wall. Each star represents 100 U.S. soldiers killed in World War II.

Persico strove to be simple, formal and concise. "It's tougher to write short than long," he says.

Persico was given the writing assignment as a commissioner of the American Battle Monuments Commission. He was nominated to the 11-member group, which includes six generals, by Secretary of State Colin Powell and appointed in 2001 by President George W. Bush.

Persico worked as Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's chief speechwriter for 11 years and has published 10 books, including a collaboration with Powell on his best-selling 1995 autobiography, "My American Journey."

None of the millions of words the 73-year-old author has written bear the gravitas of the brief passages he was called upon to compose for the memorial, located on the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

"It was very powerful for me to be asked to write the inscriptions," Persico says. "It was a privilege to take part in this lasting and important undertaking."

Quotations from military leaders and presidents were chosen, but two blank granite slabs remained. The other commissioners asked Persico, the only professional writer in the group, to draft original language.

After much revision, he settled on 59 words for the announcement stone at the memorial's entrance:

"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."

Persico will join a crowd of several hundred thousand people at today's dedication.

"When I'm long gone and my children and grandchildren and their grandchildren are long gone, those words chiseled in granite will endure," he says.

Persico -- who served in the Navy during the Korean War as coding officer aboard a minesweeper -- considers the World War II memorial long overdue.

Eleven years in the making, there were ongoing debates and delays over the $175 million memorial's location and scale, as well as protests by pacifists.

"It strikes me as ironic and unfair that we've had for some time monuments to the Korean War and the Vietnam War in Washington, but it's taken this long to get a monument to World War II, the cataclysmic event of the 20th century," he says.

The events of World War II shaped Persico's boyhood in Gloversville.

"I was 11 on Pearl Harbor Day, 15 on V-J Day and all the moments during the war described on the memorial stirred up indelible memories," Persico says.

Next to a bookshelf in his writer's study, Persico has hung a small textile flag that was placed prominently in the front window of his parent's home during the war. The antique tapestry reads "Serving Our Country" and carries five blue stars, one for each of Persico's uncles who served in the Army.

"All five uncles came back from the war and I remember celebrating each time one of them returned," Persico says. "Fortunately, there were no gold stars in our window."

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Joseph Persico