Grunts and Fly-Boys Battle Over Memorials

Call it the grunts versus the flyboys.

In a fight indicative of enduring service rivalries, the US Marines is battling the Air Force over a monument to be built just across the river from the nation's capital. It is a battle being waged in aluminum and bronze.

The Air Force wants to build a 50-foot, star-shaped monument on Arlington Ridge overlooking the Potomac River. The trouble is, the memorial would be only 530 feet away from the Marines' most-beloved monument - the bronze statue of four men raising an American flag over the Pacific island of Iwo Jima.

Since 1954, the Marine memorial has stood alone on the ridge, with thousands coming to pay tribute to the 6,800 Americans lost in the battle. Many marines are galled that the Air Force wants to encroach on what they see as their land.

But that hasn't stopped the Air Force. The service is observing its 50-year anniversary this week. And the privately run Air Force Memorial Foundation is forging ahead on building a monument made of dark aluminum that would sit on the other side of a stand of trees from the Marine memorial.

"We train together, we fight together, we can be memorialized together," says retired Lt. Gen. Robert Springer, the foundation's president and the chief proponent of the monument. "Just a few miles away at Arlington National Cemetery, we are all buried side by side. We can also be good neighbors in life."

Critics dub the project "the stealth monument" - which miffs General Springer because it suggests planning occurred out of the public eye. The lengthy approval process for any monument in Washington is by nature open and subject to public review.

The big-star memorial, complete with visitor center, has been approved by the necessary authorities - the Commission on Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission.

Springer says he even notified senior Marine Corps leaders before seeking official approval. No protests were raised, he says. But the Marine Corps has since said it objects to the monument.

Springer may have gone by the book in his planning, but news of the memorial has sparked comment from Iwo Jima survivors nationwide, who have been expressing their disappointment on the Internet and at veterans' reunions.

"It was a [high] price we paid for that one," says Everette Ramsey of the Iwo Jima battle. Now retired in Batesville, Ark., Mr. Ramsey was on an amphibious-landing craft during the assault. He swam to shore after a Japanese mortar round struck his craft. Two of his fellow marines were among those killed in the battle.

A unit from Ramsey's platoon struck the famous flag-raising pose atop Mt. Suribachi. Of the Air Force, he says, "We want them to have a memorial. But not there."

As fund-raising for the $25 million dollar Air Force effort nears the halfway point, opponents have stepped up their efforts to make sure the project doesn't take off. It would destroy the tranquillity of the 25-acre park, critics say. It would block views across the Potomac and snarl traffic with tour buses.

In short, it would ruin the atmosphere of the park.

A neighborhood group called the Friends of Iwo Jima has filed a lawsuit to block the project. Clayton Depue, the group's leader, claims he has been more than successful in gathering some 11,000 signatures he plans to deliver to Congress.

He already has at least one ally there in Rep. Gerald Solomon (R) of New York, who has lobbied the Clinton administration to intervene. "I am asking you to do your job as required by law and immediately stop the dedication of this illegal site," he wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Representative Solomon believes the monument violates the statute that regulates monuments, since it would encroach on an existing site.

While still too early to determine if any of the blocking measures will succeed, a dedication ceremony was held yesterday at the Arlington Ridge site. A marble slab was placed where construction may begin for the monument two years from now.

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