Tuesday, June 19, 2007

More About the Liberty Memorial Than You Probably Ever Wanted to Know

For Father’s Day, my sister and I took our dad, his friend, and our aunt to the National World War I Museum and Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, and WOW—I knew the new museum was supposed to be terrific, but I had no idea how terrific. I am, I admit, a total history geek, so this kind of thing is right up my alley, but even for non-geeks it’s cool. And for my family, it was cool in a personal way.

First, a bit of Liberty Memorial history: Immediately after the November 11, 1918, signing of the armistice to end The Great War, the people of Kansas City began planning and raising money for a monument to honor the men and women who had fought and died. On November 11, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge came to Kansas City to dedicate the memorial tower and its two exhibit halls. Sadly, over the years, Liberty Memorial fell into disrepair. Happily, in the late 1990s the people of Kansas City once again began raising money (this time in the form of a tax increase), and in December 2006, the newly restored memorial and brand new museum—the only museum dedicated solely to World War I—was opened.

The museum is circular. When you enter, you cross a glass bridge that spans a field of 9000 red poppies—one poppy for each 1000 lives lost in WWI. (You know those red paper poppies the VFW sells on Memorial Day to raise money for disabed veterans? They symbolize the lives lost in WWI and were inspired by “In Flanders Field,” a poem by a Canadian officer who was struck by the beautiful poppies that continued to grow amid the death and destruction on the battlefields of Belgium.)

The first exhibit is a short movie showing the circumstances in Europe leading up to the war. You then enter the right side of the circle, which contains exhibits and a timeline (through March 1917) showing Europe and parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia at war, including weapons, uniforms (I loved this part—uniforms from Australia, Japan, Africa, and even a Scottish kilt), posters, propaganda, and re-creations of French and British trenches so that you can get a feel for the daily bleakness and misery of the soldiers’ lives.

The entire back of the circle is the Horizon Theater, where you watch another movie, this time showing how the United States was pulled into the war. And WOW, what an experience this is. First of all, this movie (as well as the movie at the beginning) is interesting and dramatic and pulls you into the time period. But what makes this second film even more dramatic is the way the Horizon Theater is set up. Museum-goers sit on a balcony overlooking a life-size re-creation of a battlefield, with an enormous widescreen theater screen at the back, so that the film plays behind—and eerily lights up—the soldiers and scarred landscape.

The theater leads into the left side of the museum, dedicated to the involvement of the United States in the war. This is where it starts to get personal.

Again, a bit of history, this time about my family: My grandfather, my dad’s dad, who died when I was four, fought in France in World War I. He was in the 89th Division, 353rd Infantry Regiment, from Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas.

And on one wall of the U.S. section of the museum we found insignias of each WWI division, including the 89th, known as the “Rolling W.” Beside it were several old photos of various military units, including the 353rd Infantry. The photo was high on the wall and hard to see, especially since each soldier’s face was so tiny, but with my aunt’s help—and a big magnifying glass—we think we found Grandpa.

Outside, above the museum in one of the original Exhibit Halls that flank the memorial tower, we found maps of the Argonne Forest, which showed exactly where each regiment of the 89th Division, including the 353rd, fought during battles in September and October 1918. Grandpa told my dad and my aunt he’d gone “over the top,” meaning out of the trenches and into close combat, three times—and these maps showed us exactly when and where. For me, it was like reaching back through time and meeting the grandfather I remember and love, but barely got the chance to know. And I think for my dad and my aunt, it was like once again being—at least a little bit—with the father whom, forty years after his death, they still sorely miss.

To honor my grandfather, we bought a brick for the section of the Liberty Memorial Walk of Honor dedicated to World War I veterans. It will be installed in mid-October, just in time for Veterans Day (which seems fitting, since Veterans Day was, until 1954, called Armistice Day to commemorate the signing of the WWI armistice on November 11, 1918). It will say:

Knud C. Knudsen
353rd Infantry

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