Posts Tagged ‘Army’

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In addition to the individual graves of those buried in Arlington National Cemetery, there are also a number of monuments and memorials.  The most well-known of which is the iconic Tomb of the Unknowns. But there are also dozens of other monuments and memorials to a variety of people, groups and events interspersed throughout the cemetery’s 624 acres. And on this lunchtime bike ride, I sought out and found the memorial to the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

The Space Shuttle Columbia was the first orbiter in NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet.  It launched for the first flight of the Space Shuttle Program on April 12, 1981, and provided over 22 years of service, successfully completing 27 missions before tragedy struck on February 1, 2003.

Near the end of its 28th mission, as it was travelling at a rate of approximately 8,000 miles per hour, the Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.  This created a debris field which encompassed hundreds of miles across Northeast Texas and into Louisiana.  The orbitor’s disintegration resulted in the deaths of all seven crew members aboard, whose remains were found along with the the nose cap in Sabine County, Texas.  The crew members killed on its final mission were: Rick Husband, the Commander; William C. McCool, the Pilot; Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander/Mission Specialist 3; David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1; Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2; Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist 4; and Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist 1.   Nearly 84,000 pieces of debris from the orbitor were also found.  They are stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.

Less than two months after the disaster, President George W. Bush signed into law the “Emergency Wartime Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2003”. The “Columbia Orbiter Memorial Act” is contained in that supplemental appropriations act, which is now known as Public Law Number 108-11.  The Law authorized the Secretary of the Army, in consultation with NASA, to place the memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, accompanied by over 400 family members, former astronauts, and friends dedicated the memorial on February 2, 2004.

I found the memorial by using a new app I recently downloaded to my phone.  It is called ANC Explorer, and it’s a free app available for download for both iPhone and Android smartphones.  ANC Explorer can also be launched using a traditional computer, and accessed at the cemetery using the free WiFi available at the Welcome Center and Administration Building.  The app is also available for public use on computer kiosks at the cemetery.

ANC Ecxplorer allows users to locate gravesites and other points of interest throughout the cemetery by providing step-by-step directions to these locations.  The app also allows users to view and save front-and-back photos of a marker or monument.  Further, the app provides emergency and event notifications, self-guided tours, and the ability to share your experiences and photos on popular social media sites. Users can also save favorite places in the new “My Content” feature to create their own custom walking tours.

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National Medal of Honor Day

Today is National Medal of Honor Day. Designated by the United States Congress in 1990, it is observed annually on March 25th, and is dedicated to all recipients of this country’s highest military honor. The Medal of Honor, occasionally referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor, is awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty, and is awarded to U.S. military personnel only. Awarded by the President in the name of the U.S. Congress, there are three versions of the medal, one for the Army, one for the Navy, and one for the Air Force.  Members of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard receive the Navy version.

In recognition of today’s designation, I rode to Arlington National Cemetery on this lunchtime bike ride to visit the gravesite of not only one of the most famous recipients of the Medal of Honor, but also one of the most decorated combat soldiers in American history – U.S. Army First Lieutenant Audie Murphy.

Audie Leon Murphy was born was born on June 20, 1925, the seventh of twelve children born to Emmett Berry Murphy and his wife Josie Bell Killian, a sharecropper family in Kingston, Texas. After his father deserted the family when Murphy was in the fifth grade, he dropped out of school and got a job picking cotton for a dollar a day to help support the family. He also hunted small game to help feed them, which caused him to become very proficient with a rifle. When Murphy was 16 years old, his mother passed away, and he was forced to watch as his brothers and sisters were doled out to an orphanage or to relatives.

Murphy had always wanted to be in the military, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, he tried to enlist. However, the military turned him down for being underage. Eventually his sister provided an affidavit falsifying when he was born. He applied to the Marine Corps, but was told that at 5’-5” tall he was too short, and underweight as well, weighing in at only 110 pounds.  He was just too small.   However, Murphy was finally accepted by the Army at the end of June in 1942.

Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945. He then led a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition. He was only 19 years old at the time. By the time the war came to an end, Murphy had gone on to become America’s most-decorated soldier, earning an unparalleled 28 medals. In fact, he received every military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as medals for heroism from both France and Belgium. Murphy had been wounded three times during the war, yet, in May 1945, when victory was declared in Europe, he had still not reached his 21st birthday.

Murphy returned to a hero’s welcome in the United States, with parades, banquets, and speeches. He was then persuaded by actor James Cagney to embark on an acting career. Murphy arrived in Hollywood with, by his own account, no talent.  Nevertheless, he went on to make more than 40 films. He also published a novel of his wartime memoirs, entitled To Hell and Back, and went on to portray himself in the 1955 movie version of the book.  Honored in civilian life like he was in the military, Murphy has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

After eventually retiring from acting, he began a career in private business. But the venture was unsuccessful, and in 1968 he was forced into bankruptcy. A few years later, Murphy died in a private plane crash near Roanoke, Virginia on May 28, 1971, at the age of 46.

Audie Murphy was buried with full military honors in Section 46 of Arlington National Cemetery, just across Memorial Drive west of the Memorial Amphitheater. A flagstone walkway has been constructed to accommodate the large number of people who stop to pay their respects to this hero. At the end of a row of graves, his tomb is marked by a simple, white, government-issue tombstone, which lists only a few of his many military decorations.  Also, the headstones of Medal of Honor recipients buried at Arlington National are normally decorated in gold leaf.  But at Murphy’s request, his stone remain plain and inconspicuous, like that of an ordinary soldier.  The stone is considered by some to be the same as he was considered by the Marine Corps, too small.

Arlington National Cemetery is also the final resting place of 407 other Medal of Honor recipients, which includes the Medals of Honor awarded to the World War I Unknown, World War II Unknown, Korean War Unknown and Vietnam War Unknown buried at The Tomb of the Unknowns. The Vietnam War unknown was disinterred in 1998 and identified as Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie, but the medal remains at Arlington National. The last Medal of Honor recipient to be buried at Arlington National was Army Lieutenant Colonel Don C. Faith, who died during the Korean War. His remains were not recovered until 2012, and he was interred at the cemetery April 17, 2013.

So on this National Medal of Honor Day, take a moment to think about the 3,497 military members who have received the award.  And if you run into any of the 78 recipients of the award who are currently alive, be sure to thank them.

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Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

On this three-day Columbus Day holiday weekend I ventured to the outer areas of the D.C. metro area, where I visited the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which is located approximately 25 miles due south of the city, at 13950 Dawson Beach Road (MAP), where the Occoquan River meets the Potomac River in Woodbridge, Virginia .

Up until the 1940’s, the site was a popular tourist spot known as Dawson Beach. Then in 1950 the U.S. Army purchased the site. Named Harry Diamond Laboratories, the Army initially used the area for a radio transmitting station. In the 1970s, the base’s mission shifted to top secret research. Electromagnetic pulse testing and sight lines for security kept the vegetation low, primarily in grasslands. The base was eventually closed in the 1990s, and ownership of the 644-acre site was transferred to the Department of the Interior’s United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Originally referred to as the Marumsco National Wildlife Refuge, the refuge was officially established in 1998 and renamed the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge.   Today it consists of a mix of wetlands, native grasslands and forest areas that provide a diversity of habitats for wide variety of species. The wetland habitats cover about half of the refuge and include wet meadows, bottomland hardwoods, open freshwater marsh, and tidally influenced marshes and streams. Upland meadows and mature forest comprised mostly of oak, hickory and beech trees are interspersed among the wetlands.

The unusual number and interspersion of habitats provides visitors an opportunity to view a wide variety of wildlife species and habitats in a relatively small area. The plant diversity of this refuge is outstanding in that over 650 plant species are known to be present. The refuge also boasts being able to documented over 220 different types of birds which are either native to the area or are migratory birds passing through, many of which are uncommon or rare in the region.

The refuge has approximately four miles of old roads are reserved for foot traffic, overlapping among three circular routes. It also has two miles of roads which are reserved for motor vehicle and bicycle access. Information is posted at the visitor contact station and at trail heads.

The highlights for me included seeing white tailed deer, a red fox, a turkey, more than a dozen rabbits, wood ducks, migratory geese, painted turtles and a nesting bald eagle.  As much as I enjoyed seeing all of the wildlife, it made me sorry that I only had my cell phone with which to take photographs. On my next visit I will definitely be taking along a good camera.

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The First Division Monument

The destination for this lunchtime bike ride was a plaza within President’s Park, west of the White House and due South of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, between 17th Street Northwest and West Executive Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown neighborhood. I rode there because it is the location of the First Division Monument. 

The First Division Monument commemorates all of the soldiers who died while serving in the 1st Infantry Division of the U. S. Army, also known as The Big Red One. Conceived by The Society of the First Infantry Division, the veteran’s organization of the Army’s First Division, it was designed by American architect Cass Gilbert, and sculptor Daniel Chester French, who created the Victory statue that sits atop the monument. French also created the Butt-Millet Fountain, also located in President’s Park.  But he is perhaps best known for the sculpture of a seated Abraham Lincoln at The Lincoln Memorial.

The monument was erected in 1924 and dedicated later that year by President Calvin Coolidge.  It was originally intended to honor the sacrifices made by soldiers of the First Division who fought and died in World War I.  Later, additions to the monument were made to commemorate the lives of First Division soldiers who fought in subsequent wars and conflicts. The World War II addition on the west side was designed by the original architect’s son, Cass Gilbert Jr., and dedicated in 1957. The Vietnam War addition on the east side was added in 1977, and the Desert Storm plaque was installed in 1995.

Another, different type of addition was made to the monument in 1965.  A large flower bed in the shape of a First Division patch was added to the monument as part of Lady Bird Johnson’s landscape plans to beautify the national capital city. The flower bed is located just east of the monument’s south steps.  The symbolism of the flower bed’s shape is clearly visible from the top of the monument’s steps, but less so at ground level, which often results in it being overlooked by visitors.

After obtaining Congressional approval to erect a monument on Federal property, the Society of the First Infantry Division raised all the funds for the original monument, as well as its additions. No taxpayer money was used. However, today the monument and grounds are maintained by the National Park Service.

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The African-American Civil War Museum

Whether it’s referred to as the War to Preserve the Union or the War to End Northern Aggression, American Civil War history is all too often thought of in terms of white Yankees from the North fighting against white Southern Rebels, with African Americans relegated to the sidelines of history as their fate was decided for them. The truth, however, is much different.

In 1861 before the Civil War broke out, African Americans comprised about 14 percent of the country’s population, compared to 12.2 percent in the most recent U.S. census.  There were approximately four million slaves in the United States, and almost a half a million free African Americans. But only about one percent of all African Americans in the country lived in the North at that time.

Although African Americans had served in the U.S. Army and Navy during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812, they were initially not permitted to enlist on either side during the Civil War. In the North, a 1792 law barred them from bearing arms in the U.S. Army. Additionally, President Abraham Lincoln did not support it at that time because he was concerned that accepting black men into the military would cause more of the border states to secede. Free black men were finally permitted to enlist in the Union Army in late 1862, following the passage of the Second Confiscation and Militia Act, and Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the South, General Robert E. Lee eventually convinced the Confederate Congress to begin enlisting black soldiers near the end of the war. The legislation required the consent of the slave and his master, and would confer the rights of a freeman after the war.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, it is estimated that 209,145 African-Americans had served as soldiers, participating on both sides, although to a far lesser degree in the South than in the North.  Eventually, several thousand blacks were enlisted in the Rebel cause, but they could not begin to balance out the nearly 200,000 blacks who fought in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) for the Union, and it was too late in the war to make a difference regardless of the numbers.  All together, over 60,000 died over the course of the war, with sickness causing thirty times more deaths than battle.

The African American Civil War Museum, where I went on this lunchtime bike ride, is dedicated to preserving and telling the stories of these men, and African Americans’ involvement and impact during the American Civil War.  The museum is located in the historic Grimke Building at 1925 Vermont Avenue (MAP), just a couple of blocks west of The African American Civil War Memorial in the Shaw neighborhood’s historic U Street Corridor, an area traditionally considered to be the heart of African-American entertainment and theater in the city.

The museum opened in January of 1999, with a mission “to serve the educational needs of its local, national, and international community with a high-quality and effective learning experience while interpreting the history of the USCT and the community life of African Americans prior to, and after, the American Civil War.” This is achieved through the communication of information and stories using historic documents, photographs, newspaper articles, replicas of period clothing and uniforms, military weaponry and other artifacts, seminars by staff, and historic presentations by volunteer re-enactors. With more than 200,000 visitors each year, the museum serves as a unique resource for teachers, scholars, students and professionals of museum studies, as well as the general public. And through the museum’s African American Civil War Descendants Registry, the museum documents the family trees of more than 2,000 descendants of the men who served with the USCT.

As I was leaving the museum, I couldn’t help but think that its importance is even greater at a time like now, when the Confederate flag is getting so much attention and causing debate and divisiveness around the country. The museum enables visitors to instead learn about the largely unknown role of those 209,145 black men who fought for freedom and to preserve the union, the 23 who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, and the emergence of three important amendments to the Constitution — the 13th, 14th and 15th — which ended slavery, gave blacks equal protection under the law, and guaranteed black men the right to vote.  All in all, I’d say that’s not a bad achievement for a museum.

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The Major General George B. McClellan Memorial

The Major General George B. McClellan Memorial

On this bike ride, I stopped by the Major General George B. McClellan Memorial, which is located on a median at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue, Columbia Road, and California Street (MAP), directly in front of The Washington Hilton in northwest D.C.  The statue is part of a group of statues entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city. They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

After being named General-in-Chief of the Union Army during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln, McClellan drew praise for his military initiatives. However, he also quickly developed a reputation for his arrogance and contempt toward the political leaders in D.C., including toward the President who had named him to the top army post. The general began openly associating with Democratic leaders in Congress and showing his disregard for the Republican administration. In a letter to his wife, McClellan wrote that Lincoln was “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.”

During McClellan’s brief tenure as General-in-Chief, Lincoln made frequent evening visits to the general’s house to discuss strategy.  The most famous example of McClellan’s cavalier disregard for the President’s authority occurred on a day in 1861 when Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and presidential secretary John Hay stopped by to see the general. McClellan was out, so the trio waited for his return. After an hour, McClellan came in and was told by a porter that the guests were waiting. McClellan headed for his room without a word, and only after Lincoln waited another half-hour was the group informed that McClellan had retired for the evening and had already gone to bed. Hay felt that the president should have been greatly offended, but Lincoln replied that it was “better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”

Lincoln made no more visits to the general’s home. However, approximately four months later, the President removed McClellan as General-in-Chief of the army. How much the general’s abrasiveness played a part in his removal is open to debate. Many regarded McClellan as a poor battlefield general. Others maintain that he was a highly capable commander, whose reputation suffered unfairly at the hands of pro-Lincoln partisans who needed a scapegoat for the Union’s setbacks. His legacy therefore defies easy categorization. After the war, Ulysses S. Grant was asked to evaluate McClellan as a general. He replied, “McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war.” But Robert E. Lee, on being asked who was the ablest general on the Union side during the late war, replied emphatically: “McClellan, by all odds!”

Interestingly, McClellan later ran as the Democrat party’s nominee for the 1864 presidential election against Lincoln. He was soundly trounced in the election, obtaining only 21 electoral votes to Lincoln’s 212 electoral votes. McClellan subsequently held several positions, including governor of New Jersey, before retiring to spend his final years traveling and writing his memoirs.

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The Korean War Veterans Memorial

The Korean War Veterans Memorial

On this ride Julius and I went to one of D.C.’s “major” memorials, the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Located in southwest D.C.’s West Potomac Park, just south of The Reflecting Pool on the National Mall (MAP), the memorial commemorates the sacrifices of the 5.8 million Americans who served in the U.S. armed services during the three-year period of the Korean War.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean military forces surprised the South Korean army, and the small U.S. force stationed in the country, and quickly headed toward the capital city of Seoul. The U.S. responded by pushing a resolution through the United Nations Security Council calling for military assistance to South Korea. The Soviet Union was not present to veto the action as it was boycotting the Security Council at the time. With this resolution in hand, President Harry Truman rapidly dispatched U.S. land, air, and sea forces to Korea to engage in what he termed a “police action.” The U.S. intervention turned the tide, and U.S. and South Korean forces marched into North Korea. This action, however, prompted the massive intervention of communist Chinese forces in late 1950. The war in Korea subsequently bogged down into a bloody stalemate. On July 27, 1953, the U.S. and North Korea signed a cease-fire that ended the conflict. The cease-fire agreement also resulted in the continued division of North and South Korea at just about the same geographical point as before the conflict.

The Korean War was the first “hot” war of the Cold War. Korea was the first “limited war,” one in which the U.S. aim was not the complete and total defeat of the enemy, but rather the “limited” goal of protecting South Korea. For the U.S. government, such an approach was the only rational option in order to avoid a third world war and to keep from stretching finite American resources too thinly around the globe. It proved to be a frustrating experience for the American people, who were used to the kind of total victory that had been achieved in World War II. The public found the concept of limited war difficult to understand or support and the Korean War never really gained popular support.

The war was one of the most hard-fought in American history. During its relatively short duration, 54,246 Americans died in support of their country. Of these, 8,200 are listed as missing in action or lost or buried at sea. An additional 103,284 Americans were wounded during the conflict.  An estimated 2.5 million civilians were also killed or wounded.

The main portion of the memorial honoring these men and women is in the form of a triangle intersecting a circle. Within the walled triangle are 19 stainless steel statues, which represent an ethnic cross section of America. Each statue is larger than life-size, measuring between 7 feet 3 inches and 7 feet 6 inches tall, and weighing nearly half a ton. The figures represent a squad on patrol, drawn from each branch of the armed forces; fourteen of the figures are from the U.S. Army, three are from the Marine Corps, one is a Navy Corpsman, and one is an Air Force Forward Air Observer. They are dressed in full combat gear, dispersed among strips of granite and juniper bushes which represent the rugged terrain of Korea.

The main reflection wall along the south side of the triangle is 164 feet long, 8 inches thick; and made from more than 100 tons of highly polished “Academy Black” granite. More than 2,500 photographic, archival images depicting soldiers, equipment and people involved in the war are sandblasted onto the wall. When the statues are reflected on the wall, there appear to be 38 soldiers, representing the 38th parallel. To the north of the statues is a path, forming another side of the triangle. Alongside the path, forming the second side of the triangle is the United Nations Wall, a low wall listing the 22 members of the United Nations that contributed troops or medical support to the Korean War effort.  The third side of the triangle, facing towards The Lincoln Memorial, is open.

The memorial’s circle contains the Pool of Remembrance, a shallow pool 30 feet in diameter lined with black granite and surrounded by a grove of linden trees with benches. The trees are shaped to create a barrel effect, which allows the sun to reflect on the pool. Inscriptions list the numbers killed, wounded, missing in action, and held as prisoners of war, and a nearby plaque is inscribed: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” Additionally, next to the information about the American soldiers is information about the United Nations troops.

The meaning of the memorial is perhaps most captured by a message embedded in one of its granite walls, which bears the simple message, inlaid in silver: “Freedom Is Not Free.”

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The George Gordon Meade Memorial

The George Gordon Meade Memorial

The George Gordon Meade Memorial is a public artwork by American artist Charles Grafly, and is located at 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue  (MAP) in northwest D.C. Residents of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania commissioned the sculpture to commemorate the man who is best known as the Union General who defeated Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg, which not only involved the largest number of casualties of the Civil War, but is considered a major turning point of war. The statue is part of a group of statues entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.,” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city. They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

Born the eighth of eleven children, George Gordon Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain, where his father worked as a U.S. naval officer.  Following his father’s death when he was only 13 years old, Meade’s family found itself on the brink of financial bankruptcy and returned to the United States in 1828 to settle in Pennsylvania.  In 1831, at the age of 16, Meade received an appointment to the United State Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated in 1835. He then served in the U.S. Army briefly during the Seminole War before retiring. He worked in the private sector as a civil engineer until 1842, when he asked to be reinstated to the Army. He was appointed a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and served constructing lighthouses and breakwaters in New Jersey and Florida. Four years later during the Mexican-American War, he was present but saw no major combat at several major battles. He returned to topographical work after the war in near the Great Lakes until his services were again called upon at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Despite being one of the few Union generals who began his life and career in a foreign country, Meade quickly rose through the ranks. Meade was promoted from captain to brigadier general, and helped work on the defenses of Washington before joining the army of the Potomac under General George B. McClellan. He was involved in the Seven Days battles at Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, and Glendale, where he received several serious wounds. After recuperating, he went on to fight at the battle of Second Manassas, the battle of South Mountain, Antietam, the battle of Fredericksburg, and the battle of Chancellorsville. By 1863, Meade was given command of the Army of the Potomac, succeeding General Joseph Hooker just one month before meeting and defeating General Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. Subsequent to his victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, Meade was promoted to brigadier general in the regular army, and went on to be involved in the Bristoe Station and Mine Run campaigns, and the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. General-in-Chief of Union Forces Ulysses S. Grant requested that Meade be promoted to major general, which was approved by President Abraham Lincoln. Meade served under General Grant for the last year of the war, but was not present at the surrender of Lee’s army in Appomattox, and was largely overshadowed by Grant.

After the war, Meade returned to Pennsylvania and held several military commands. While still on active duty, he died in1872 in Philadelphia, from complications of his old wounds combined with pneumonia.

The D.C. memorial to Meade consists of a cylinder shaped statue featuring a figure of the General on the front. Meade stands in front of six allegorical figures standing side by side. They represent Loyalty, Chivalry, Fame, Progress, Military Courage and Energy, and were thought by the artist as the traits needed to make a “great” general. Loyalty and Chivalry are shown removing Meade’s cloak, which symbolizes the “cloak of battle.” Loyalty also holds a wreath and garlands above Meade’s head, representing the Meade’s deeds. There is also a figure representing War featured on the back of the memorial. Atop the monument is a gold finial with the state seal of Pennsylvania, and an inscription at the base of the monument reads, “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Major General George Gordon Meade, who commanded the Union forces at Gettysburg.”

The memorial was originally installed in 1922 at Union Square near the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, but was moved into National Park Service storage in 1966 due to construction. In 1983 it was finally installed at its current location.

 

Site of World's First Air Mail Service

Site of World’s First Air Mail Service

A short bike ride from downtown D.C., located just off the Rock Creek Park Trail that parallels the water along the north bank of the Potomac River in West Potomac Park, and near Ohio and West Basin Drives (MAP) in Southwest D.C., I discovered a stone with a brass plaque marker.  After reading the plaque, I learned that the marker was placed there by The Aero Club of Washington, commemorating the first air mail flight to be operated as a continuously scheduled public service.  The air mail service planes used the nearby field just south of The Washington Monument near the National Mall to take off and land.

Following 52 experimental flights by the Post Office Department in 1911 and 1912, the first extended test of airmail service began on May 15, 1918, when the U.S. Army and the Post Office Department together began operating a line using U.S Army training plains, known as “Jenny” biplanes.  The planes were flown by Army pilots operating on a route between the old Washington Polo Grounds near the marker, and Belmont Park in New York City, with an intermediate stop at Bustleton Field in Philadelphia.  Included in those who were on hand for the departure of the first flight were President Woodrow Wilson, U.S. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

An Army lieutenant named George L. Boyle was selected to pilot the aircraft on the first flight.  Unfortunately, that flight turned out to be a somewhat less than successful initial venture, and perhaps an omen of the Postal Service’s future level of quality and service.  Boyle became disoriented almost immediately after take off, and started flying in the wrong direction.  Upon realizing that he was lost, Boyle attempted to find out where he was by making an unscheduled landing in nearby Waldorf, Maryland.  However, he broke the prop on his airplane when he made a hard landing, and the mail he was carrying had to be trucked back to D.C.   The mail was flown to Philadelphia and New York the next day but, of course, arrived late.

The plaque on the marker does not make mention of this ignominious beginning.  It reads:  “Air Mail. The world’s first airplane mail to be operated as a continuously scheduled public service started from this field May 15, 1918.  The route connected Washington, Philadelphia and New York, CurtisJN 4-H airplanes with a capacity of 150 pounds of mail flew the 230 miles in above three hours.  The service was inaugurated by the Post Office Department in cooperation with the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army.  On August 12, 1918, the service was taken over in its entirety by the Post Office Department.  This marker was erected by The Aero Club of Washington on the fortieth anniversary.  May 15, 1958.”

Less than twenty years later, in October of 1975, Air Mail as a separate class of service was effectively ended within the U.S. when all domestic intercity First Class mail began to be transported by air at the normal First Class rate, and was formally eliminated by the successor to the Post Office Department, the United States Postal Service.

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The Zero Milestone

The Zero Milestone

Just south of The White House near the northern end of The Ellipse (MAP) stands a four-foot high pink granite block topped with a brass compass.  Although it is in the middle of a sidewalk, most people walking by are oblivious to it.  If they notice it at all, they frequently use it as just a convenient spot to steady their cameras when taking photographs of The White House, or on which to set down other personal items while photographing each other in front of the White House.  However, the often overlooked granite block has both significance and history.

On July 7, 1919, a temporary marker was authorized by Congress to establish a fixed point for measuring distances, similar to the Roman Empire’s Golden Milestone.  It was as an idea that had been under consideration for a while.  The temporary marker was dedicated during ceremonies launching the U.S. Army’s first attempt to send a convoy of military vehicles across the country to the West Coast.  On June 5th of the following year, a permanent marker was authorized.  The newly-founded Lee Highway Association, which consisted of representatives of all the states through which the country’s first coast-to-coast highway would pass, subsequently presented the granite block, named “The Zero Milestone,” as a gift to the city on June 4, 1923.

It was planned that The Zero Milestone, which stands on the north and south meridian of D.C., would serve as the location from which all road distances in the United States would be calculated.  However, people in other areas of the country, particularly the west coast, didn’t like the idea that their highway and road markers would begin with high numbers based on their distance from The Zero Milestone.  For example, highway mile markers in California would begin with the lowest numbers already in the 3000’s.  So, based on vehement opposition, the original plan was abandoned.  The cancellation of the plan also symbolically sent a message to politicians in the Nation’s Capital that, despite what they may think, D.C. is not the center of the universe, or even country.  Today the Zero Milestone only anchors roads distances within D.C., and is symbolically the official starting point for the measurement of distances from the city.

The four-sided monument has inscriptions on each side, which read:  (North side) “Zero Milestone”;  (East)  “Starting Point Of Second Transcontinental Motor Convoy Over The Bankhead Highway, June 14, 1920”; (South) “Point For The Measurement Of Distances From Washington On Highways Of The United States,” and; (West) “Starting Point Of First Transcontinental Motor Convoy Over The Lincoln Highway, July 7, 1919.”

Throughout the city, there is historical significance all around you if you know where to look for it.  And now, if you find yourself on the sidewalk of The Ellipse, you’ll know at least one place to find it.