WWII Memorial Still Seeking a Home
After 64 years of deception and disappointment, a memorial honoring the 40 U.S. servicemen who lost their lives during World War II in the deadliest plane crash in Australian history still does not have a permanent home on American soil.
Called the Bakers Creek Memorial after the area in Australia where the plane went down on June 14, 1943, it currently is housed in the Australian embassy while its supporters try to get the Congressional approval necessary to land it a place in Arlington National Cemetery.
While such efforts have never gained much traction in Congress, Senate debate on the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2008, which is scheduled to hit the floor as early as this week, may bring the memorial one step closer to Arlington.
In the bill, there is a measure supporting its placement there that already has passed through the House and a markup in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
If this measure is preserved, it would shine some light on a tragedy that has for years been shrouded in secrecy. For the 15 years following the crash, information about it was classified and not even the families of the victims were told about the true cause of their loved ones’ deaths.
Even after the information was declassified, many family members did not find out about it until 2000 — when Robert Cutler formed the Bakers Creek Memorial Association after reading about the crash in his father’s war diaries — or later. Then a college professor, Cutler has since retired to focus on seeking out family members of the victims and calling attention to the tragedy.
Efforts to put a memorial in Arlington only began in 2003, when Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) introduced a resolution supporting its placement there after she heard about the crash from some of her constituents whose relatives died in it.
To put the memorial in Arlington, Congress needs to pass a resolution to that end, and while there has never been much explicit opposition to it, it hasn’t been considered a pressing issue. “It’s a World War II incident way down at the bottom of the pile,” Cutler said.
Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who has been a supporter of the memorial, agreed. “There are just a lot of bills that compete for time and energy. This is not one of the significant events that is alive in everyone’s minds,” he said.
But as the measure is currently buried in a massive authorization bill, apathy may not be enough to derail it. Capito said she hopes its placement there will provide for it “a vehicle that will make it all the way through [Congress].”
While the crash has mostly escaped the attention of Congress over the past few years, it certainly was on the minds of those who attended two ceremonies for the 40 soldiers — one at the World War II Memorial and the other at the Australian embassy — on the anniversary of the tragedy on Thursday.
In Australia, where the crash is more widely publicized, there have been ceremonies for the victims for several years, but this was only the fourth year that there have been commemorative events in the United States.
According to Cutler, around 35 people attended each of the ceremonies on Thursday, and the one at the World War II Memorial drew the attention of a large number of tourists. Pearce, Australian Ambassador to the United States Dennis Richardson and representatives from the Air Force were among the attendees.
Cutler said the atmosphere during the ceremonies was upbeat, although “it was clearly acknowledged by all present that [the memorial] is not at Arlington Cemetery and that it ought to be.”
But if efforts to get the memorial there fail, there is still another option on the table, as the National Museum of the United States Air Force at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, offered last month to house it.
Cutler said that while the memorial association has not ruled out the possibility of accepting that offer, its members would much prefer a spot in Arlington. “There’s no place like Arlington. It’s sacred ground,” he said.