Honoring American Women of War

Washington memorial marks the contributions of 1.8 million servicewomen

Washington's newest monument is nothing like its closest neighbor, the supremely heroic Iwo Jima Marine memorial, which marks the toughest battle in the 222-year history of the Corps.

Nor is it like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial across the Potomac, where names on black marble slabs descending into the ground mark individual sacrifice - reverently, soberly.

The Women in Military Service for America Memorial is a place of glass, fountains, and light. It marks the quiet, critical contributions of some 1.8 million women in all of the nation's wars.

"When I served in the Navy, women were not even allowed to vote," said Frieda Mae Greene Hardin, who joined the Navy in 1918. Some 12,500 other women enlisted in World War I.

Such a monument to women is "long overdue," she told tens of thousands of servicewomen, family, and friends at Saturday's dedication. "In my 101 years of living, I have observed many wonderful achievements, but none as important as the process of women taking their rightful place in society," she added.

When she first enlisted, women were not entitled to military status or veteran's benefits. Now women are eligible to compete for any assignment, except ground combat and submarines.

Some 200,000 women currently serve in the armed forces, or some 13 percent, according to the Defense Department. The new women's monument lines up along the most dramatic axis in Washington, from the Capitol, past the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington National Cemetery. Its entrance, a 30-foot, curving granite wall, is like "a mother's embrace," said Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, who headed the 11-year, $12.5 million effort to recognize women's wartime contributions.

In front of the monument, 200 jets of water converge into a pool. This fountain celebrates the "collective strength of many individuals, rather than singular acts of heroism and bravery," says architects Michael Manfredi and Marion Gail Weiss, who designed the memorial.

Inside, glass tablets in the ceiling are inscribed with quotations by and about military women. Computerized data bases record names, photographs, service records, and personal statements. Some 250,000 women are already included in these files.

The highlight of the monument - and its dedication - are their stories, most of which have never been documented. "This is the largest gathering ever of servicewomen, and the first memorial of its kind in the world," said General Vaught on Saturday.

Many women in the audience brought old photographs. Laura Suddath Granville sat on an aisle holding up pictures of herself as a Navy nurse in World War II and an Army nurse in Korea. "I'm hoping someone will recognize me from these old photos," she says.

For most of their wartime history, women did the cooking, washing, and nursing. Some managed to fight: Molly Pitcher took over her wounded husband's gun position against the British at the battle of Monmouth in 1778.

In the Civil War, 400 women fought disguised as men. "Even when women weren't allowed to serve in the military, they found a way," says Lt. Cmdr. Charlotte Hunter, a Navy chaplain.

Some 400,000 women served in all branches of the armed forces in World War II. Statia Dobeck was an Army nurse in Wales and at Dachau, near Munich, after that Nazi concentration camp was liberated. "We tried to save as many as we could at Dachau, but it was pretty desperate. All the movies they have now just brings it all back," she says.

Ruth Wright was part of the first black battalion to be sent overseas as a unit. "We were all women, and we took care of all the mail in the European theater. It's a thrill for me to see how many blacks are here today," she says.

Elizabeth Welty Meyer, from Grand Island, Neb., volunteered so that the Navy could free up more men for combat "They were sinking ships so fast in the Atlantic and losing so many radar officers that they turned to the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). We were all Depression kids. I had rarely been out of Nebraska. The whole country was involved," she says.

She and nine other women joined an elite class at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to learn top-secret radar technology. "They were encouraging anyone with a physics background to join," adds Charlotte Potter, also a member of that elite WAVES team. "The technology was so new that there weren't even any manuals. We couldn't take anything out of the building, so we'd study from 8 a.m. to midnight."

* To register for the women's memorial, contact Women in Military Service for America Memorial, Dept. 560, Washington DC 20043-0560.

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