Historical Landmark of the Month (April): US Navy Memorial (Part I)

I recently mentioned the annual Charging of the Fountains and Blessing of the Fleet at the Navy Memorial. It was an interesting event, and I wanted to give a brief recap. But before I can talk about the event, we need a little historical background on the Navy Memorial.

The United States Navy Memorial sits on Pennsylvania Avenue, about halfway between the Capital and the White House, directly behind the National Archives. If you know your Washington, DC history, you'll remember that DC was the brainchild of Pierre L’Enfant, a French architect who served with George Washington during the Revolutionary War. In 1791, President Washington appointed L’Enfant to design the new capital city. Among his many ideas, L'Enfant envisioned a memorial in the Nation’s Capital to "to celebrate the first rise of the Navy and consecrate its progress and achievements." Congress, however, did not think it was important enough to fund this dream, and for almost 200 years, it never happened.

In 1977, Admiral Arleigh Burke and several other retired Admirals founded the nonprofit US Navy Memorial Foundation with the goal of building the memorial. In 1980, the Foundation had 2 major successes--they received the blessing of Congress to construct a Navy Memorial on public land in DC, and Congress authorized the Memorial, with the stipulation that funding come solely from private contributions.

Construction began in December 1985, and the Memorial was dedicated two years later on October 13, 1987, the 212th birthday of the United States Navy. The Memorial is home to "Memorial Plaza", which features Stanly Bleifield's famous statue, The Lone Sailor. The Lone Sailor overlooks the Granite Sea, an exact replication of the world's oceans and the world’s largest map of the world (additionally, the Sea is accurately lined up with real life. In other words, north on the Granite Sea is truly north.) Surrounding the Granite Sea are two fountain pools, honoring the personnel of the American Navy and the other navies of the world. The southern hemisphere of the Granite Sea is surrounded by 26 bronze bas-reliefs plaques commemorating Naval events, personnel, and communities. Here are a couple of my favorites:

This plaque honors John Paul Jones, one of the Navy's greatest heroes and tradition makers. None of these traditions stands out more conspicuously than his refusal to acknowledge defeat, even against overwhelming odds: "I have not yet begun to fight," he replied, when asked to surrender his ship Bonhomme Richard. This plaque, created by sculptor Fred Press, depicts John Paul Jones, onboard the USS Ranger, in battle with HMS Drake in the Irish Sea. Later, in anticipation of yet another command, Jones set forth his specifications, "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way."

Authorized, established and named on March 5, 1942, the Navy's construction battalions—the world-renowned Seabees—have distinguished themselves in a half century of service in construction and combat. The sculptor for this plaque, Leo C. Irrera, served in the Seabees in World War II.

In this beautiful plaque, sculptor Robert Summers depicts the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864.

For an in-depth look at each of the panels, click here.

The Lone Sailor is one of the most recognizable features of the Navy Memorial. It's cast in bronze, and is comprised of bronze collected from 8 decommissioned US Navy ships. It's a classic image of the Navy and there are 12 reproductions of the statue around the world in various Navy ports (Norfolk, Jacksonville, Bremerton, San Francisco, etc).

The original Lone Sailor in DC.

The Lone Sailor; Burlington, Vermont.

The Lone Sailor; Great Lakes Recruit Training Center

The Lone Sailor; Long Beach, California

The Lone Sailor overlooks the USS Wisconsin; Norfolk, Virginia

The Lone Sailor; Burlington,Vermont (again--I really liked this photo)

The Lone Sailor; Waterloo, Iowa. (There's a great story of why the Lone Sailor is in Iowa...that may come later.)

As a historian who appreciates the power and significance of words, one of my favorite areas is an outdoor wall that records significant sayings in US Navy history. Here's a few of them:

"I have not yet begun to fight!" - Captain John Paul Jones; 1779

"Don't give up the ship!" - Captain James Lawrence; 1813

"We have met the enemy and they are ours." - Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry; 1813

"Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead." - Admiral David Farragut; 1864

"You may fire when you are ready, Gridley." - Commodore George Dewey; 1898

"Sighted sub, sank same" - Aviation Machinist's Mate 1/c Donald Francis Mason; 1942

(If you are curious about the setting of these, and additional, quotes, you can find it here.

Up next, the actual event!


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