It was the spring of 1961 when the first seeds of a World War II Memorial were planted in the mind of Roger Durbin, himself a veteran of that war.
“He went with me to Washington DC in 1961 when I was in college,” said Roger’s son, Pete. “He couldn’t get over the fact there wasn’t a World War II memorial, and he never stopped talking about it.
“In 1965, my parents traveled to Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium for a 20th Armored Division reunion. They visited the Belgian Mardasson Memorial, a tribute to Americans who died on Belgian soil during the war,” Pete said. “He didn’t understand why there was a memorial in Belgium honoring Americans erected within five years of the end of the war, but there wasn’t one in the United States.”
Roger, a rural mail carrier in Berkey, OH, at the time, came home and began to wage his own war — one conversation, phone call and letter at a time — to make his dream of a World War II memorial a reality.
“He’d sit at his antique roll-top desk and write letters on an old electric typewriter,” Pete said. “He wrote to every congressman at least once, and he wrote to people like Ann Landers — anyone he thought might be able to help the cause. He just never gave up.”
It was in 1987 when Roger made contact with the right person, and things began to happen.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the famous fish fry story,” Pete said, laughing. U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) was in the buffet line when Roger saw her and called out from across the room. “Where is the World War II Memorial in Washington?”
“She mentioned the Iwo Jima Memorial, but my dad had his answers at the ready. At this point, all eyes were on them. The room became silent,” Pete recalls. “Marcy said, ‘Mr. Durbin, we need to talk.'”
It took three presidential administrations — George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — and more than 17 years from the first conversation between Roger Durbin and Congresswoman Kaptur before the memorial was dedicated.
When Kaptur realized that, indeed, there was no memorial, she entered a congressional bill for its construction. “It didn’t go anywhere, so she ended up entering the bill two more times,” Pete said. “My father testified before Congress for a bill to allow coins to be minted as a fundraiser for the memorial.”
Roger then was invited to present the first set of minted coins to President Clinton. His wife, Marian, and their grandchildren, Melissa Durbin Growden and Tom Durbin, also attended the White House ceremony.
“This didn’t awe him,” said Pete. “He was a country boy from Ohio, and he was there to do a job. He was even invited to preview the movie Saving Private Ryan, but he didn’t go. He said he was too busy.”
“When I returned to Ohio after the White House ceremony, I wrote to the American Battle Monuments Commission and said I’d be willing to help with the project,” Melissa said. “I didn’t hear back and sort of forgot about the letter.”
Two years later, Melissa received a call from Kaptur saying she’d been appointed to the 12-member WW II Memorial Advisory Board by President Clinton. “I was 26 years old when I took the oath of office in 1994. Here I am sitting at a table with a retired general, retired admiral and a Holocaust survivor.
I don’t think any of us realized how this project would grow,” she said. “We started out thinking it would be a $10 million project. In the end the memorial cost $195 million.”
During the next 10 years, Melissa traveled to Washington several times a year to meet with the board, review progress and plans, and help make decisions.
“Our starting point was to ask every state to donate $1 for every veteran from their state,” she said. “School children held fundraising drives and veterans’ groups made substantial contributions.”
Sadly, two years before the completion of the memorial, Roger passed away. “The day before he went into the hospital for surgery, Marcy came to the house. She said, ‘Roger you don’t have to worry, it’s going to be built.'”
Within 24 hours of his death, the White House called twice, and Senator Bob Dole sent a long letter by private courier and asked that it be read at the funeral.
The World War II Memorial — located between the Washington Monument to the east and the Lincoln Memorial to the west — honors the 16 million men and women who served in the American armed forces, the more than 400,000 who died and all who supported the war effort on the home front. The memorial symbolizes the spirit, sacrifice and commitment of the American people. It is operated by the National Park Service and is open to visitors 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
For more information about visiting the memorial, accessibility, parking, directions, special events and other details, please visit the National Park Service website wwiimemorial.com, or call the Park Service at (202) 619-7222.
During Roger’s last months, The History Channel was making a documentary about the memorial. A week after Roger’s funeral, the family sat down to watch a preview copy of the film. “We had no idea, but at the end of the movie, it said the film was dedicated to Roger Durbin,” Pete said.
“This memorial was conceived during the mid-1980s in the heartland of America —Ohio, the Buckeye state, in the mind of one battle-scarred veteran, a rural carrier in Lucas County, a township trustee, and former Army tank mechanic, Roger Durbin, and his wife, Marian, from Berkey, Ohio, population: 265,” Kaptur said as she was joined by President George W. Bush, former presidents Clinton and Bush, and other dignitaries at the dedication.
Kaptur retold the story of how Roger, who had served under Gen. George Patton and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, had confronted her at a local fish fry and demanded to know why there wasn’t a memorial to World War II where he could take his grandchildren in Washington. “The Durbin grandchildren, Melissa and Tom, are here today,” she said.
Melissa joined the congresswoman at the podium and helped her deliver the close to her remarks, borrowing from the 1944 hit song, I’ll Be Seeing You.
“After the ceremony, a woman came up to me and said her father had passed away two years before, ‘but there are 17 of us here today to live his dream,'” Melissa said. “I met so many veterans and their families with similar sentiments. More than 200,000 attended the ceremonies during the four-day event. This is a legacy for all generations.”
“My dad loved to do things for others,” Pete said. “His tireless work to see this memorial built was his gift to so many.”
“This memorial belongs to everyone,” Melissa added.