One WWII Vet’s Persistence Led to Memorial on National Mall

Fri May 28, 2004 - National Edition
Malia Rulon

WASHINGTON (AP) Roger Durbin thought something was missing when he visited the capital in 1960: a memorial commemorating World War II.

Durbin, a veteran of that war, went home to Ohio but never forgot what he perceived as a slight to those who had served.

He talked about it to fellow veterans, who also thought a memorial would be a fitting tribute. It took 26 years and an encounter with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-OH, to get the idea into motion.

Durbin was frying fish at a political gathering in northwest Ohio when he saw the lawmaker. “Why is there no World War II memorial in Washington that I can take my grandchildren to?” he shouted.

Kaptur told Durbin there was a memorial for the World War II battle of Iwo Jima. Durbin shook his head and said that memorial only commemorates the Marines. Unable to come up with a response, Kaptur pulled up a chair and said, “Let’s talk.”

The conversation was the genesis for a bill sponsored by Kaptur that led to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. The memorial, designed by architect Friedrich St. Florian of Providence, RI, opens to the public at the end of the month; a formal dedication is planned for Memorial Day weekend.

Durbin died four months before ground was broken in 2000, but family members and friends will attend the dedication in his honor.

“It’s almost unbelievable,” said Durbin’s son Peter, a retired high school English teacher. “We didn’t have a clue that it would go this far or that he would be in the center of this. He was so persistent.”

Born in Sylvania, OH, Durbin enlisted in the Army after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was a tank mechanic for the 10th Armored Division and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, Durbin and his wife, Marian, settled into their working-class lifestyle. He was a letter carrier. After retiring, he was a town trustee. That’s what put him in Kaptur’s path in 1986.

Kaptur thought at the time that no one would oppose a memorial. But there were disagreements over how the money should be raised, who should manage it and where the memorial should be built.

The idea gained momentum in the mid-1990s with the sale of gold commemorative coins. Former Sen. Bob Dole, a World War II veteran, and Federal Express chief executive Fred Smith signed on to lead the fund-raising effort. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks also backed the project, which required $174 million.

But the memorial ran into roadblocks when opponents argued it shouldN’t be in the middle of the National Mall because it would diminish the view. They sued to delay construction. Others claimed the design was authoritarian.

Durbin, who testified before Congress and helped President Clinton dedicate the site in 1995, kept pushing the issue by working the phones from his home in Berkey, OH, a town of 265 people near Toledo.

In 1999, Ohio lawmakers approved $500,000 in public funds for the memorial and 47 other states also contributed.

“He was constantly calling us for updates,” said Mike Conley, the memorial’s associate executive director. “I’d answer the phone: ’Mike, it’s Roger. What’s going on? How much money have you raised? I’m not going to be here forever.

“In a sense, when we lost him, it kind of encapsulated what we had been saying for so long about the urgency of completing this tribute, of how rapidly we were losing that special generation,” Conley said.

The Veterans Affairs Department estimates World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1,056 a day — more than 385,000 a year. Fewer than 4 million of the 16 million people who served during the war will be alive when the memorial is dedicated.

“I grew up hearing my grandfather say, ’I hope you never have to face what my generation had to in the way of Depression and war,’” said Melissa Growden, one of Durbin’s two grandchildren and a member of the memorial’s advisory board. “He simply wanted our nation to thank that generation.”