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Indiana World War Memorial

Indiana World War Memorial (Indianapolis, Indiana)

Indiana World War Memorial

The massive memorial rises skyward in downtown Indianapolis.

After Washington, D.C., Indianapolis has more historic memorials and monuments than any other city in the United States.

As I explored America’s 14th-largest city, I came across many of these thoughtful, artistic, touching tributes. I found memorials and monuments honoring those who served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War as well as one that recognizes all the wars that the United States fought leading up to World War I. Recognition is also given to the crew of the ill-fated USS Indianapolis, to one of its sailors in particular, to 9/11, to firefighters, to police officers, to recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The list goes on and on.

In this crowded field, the one that I made sure not to miss was the magnificent Indiana World War Memorial. Occupying an entire city block in downtown Indianapolis and flanked by gently sloping green lawns, this massive memorial to the veterans of World War I rises to a height of 210’, making it one of the tallest memorials in the United States. Its neo-Classical design was based on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Construction began in 1926, and it was dedicated in 1933, but the final touches to the memorial and its surrounding landscaping weren’t completed until 1965. It’s a key element of the Indiana World War Memorial Historic District, the largest war memorial project in the United States, encompassing 24 acres.

Indiana World War Memorial

The museum covers every facet of wars that Indianans have served in since the 1700s.

As I approached this patriotic shrine, I was instantly awed by its grandeur. The memorial stands on a raised terrace with a tremendous urn balanced at each corner. Wide monumental staircases climb up to its base on each of its four sides. All four of the cubical structure’s limestone facades are identical: an Ionic screen of half a dozen columns, tall banks of windows behind them, and two male and four female figures symbolizing Courage, Memory, Peace, Victory, Liberty, and Patriotism. Limestone lions bearing shields guard the north and south entrances, and the south entrance also features Pro Patria (For One’s Country), a colossal nude male bronze statue that weighs seven tons and reaches a height of 24’. The entire thing is capped with a stepped pyramidal roof and a lantern at its peak.

I climbed up the two dozen steps to the main entrance. Above a quartet of intricately carved bronze doors reads the inscription that encapsulates the memorial’s raison d’être:

To commemorate the valor and sacrifice of the land, sea and air forces of the United States and all who rendered faithful and loyal service at home and overseas in the World War; to inculcate a true understanding and appreciation of the privileges of American citizenship; to inspire patriotism and respect for the law to the end that peace may prevail, justice be administered, public order maintained and liberty perpetuated.

Already impressed, I entered directly into the Grand Foyer, a large hall with Tennessee marble floors and Art Deco Egyptian motfis. I headed downstairs to the lower level, occupied by the Indiana War Memorial Military Museum. This comprehensive museum traces the history and contributions of Hoosier soldiers, from the events leading up to the Revolutionary War to current conflicts in the Middle East. The collection features everything from 400 military flags to WWII propaganda posters to a Cobra helicopter.

Shrine Room, Indiana World War Memorial

The stunning Shrine Room reaches a height of 110′.

I returned to the main level and peeked in at the exhibit that replicates the radio room of the USS Indianapolis. If you’re not familiar with the story of this historic heavy cruiser—its 13 years of service that began in 1932, its top-secret delivery of uranium and other components critical to the atomic bombs that ultimately knocked Japan out of World War II, and how it was torpedoed only a few days after making that critical delivery and sank in only 12 minutes, killing more than 300 crewmembers who went down with the ship and casting nearly 900 more into the Pacific Ocean, where they suffered from exposure, dehydration, hunger, saltwater poisoning, delirium, and shark attacks for four hopeless days before the survivors, now dwindled down to about 300, were rescued—then I strongly recommend reading Abandon Ship!: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy’s Greatest Sea Disaster, by Richard F. Newcomb and originally published in 1958; you won’t be able to put it down.

From there, I climbed one of the very, very, very long staircases of Georgia white marble, with multiple landings to break up the hike, and entered the incomparable Shrine Room. Soaring to a height of 110’ and measuring 60’ on each side, this sacrosanct space—one of the most dramatic interiors you’re likely to experience—intrinsically demands quiet and respect.

Shrine Room, Indiana World War Memorial

The Altar of Consecration evokes a deep reverence from all its visitors.

Clad in materials collected from all the allied nations of World War I, the shrine’s walls bear the names of all the Indiana military personnel who fought in the war. Sixteen fluted marble columns, four on each side, are capped with gilded Corinthian capitals. Behind them, tall, brilliant, deep-blue stained-glass windows allow muted natural light to enter. A terrific white plaster frieze with allegorical bas-relief figures wraps around the room, depicting key events and guiding forces of the war, with golden captions that read, for instance, “Unity of Effort Leads Our Arms to Victory,” “Realizing Their Obligation, Mothers Nobly Give Their Sons,” and “Public Order Maintained and Freedom Under Law Perpetuated.”

In the center of the room, an American flag, measuring 17’ x 30’, is suspended from the domed ceiling that reflects the pyramid form I had seen on the exterior, cast in the glow of the many blue lights above it as well as of the Star of Destiny, an illuminated star made of Swedish crystal.

Frieze, Shrine Room, Indiana World War Memorial

The fantastic frieze shares noble messages.

The flag hangs above the slightly elevated Altar of Consecration. Cauldrons on tripod stands flank the altar at the corners. The altar itself, covered in brightly colored enamels and ornamented with patriotic imagery—stars and eagles—is etched with these words:

Within this shrine there lives the spirit of brotherhood binding the people of the United States with the nations of the world.

This spectacular, sacred place humbles you not only by its size but also by those for whom it was constructed. It pays homage to those who fought in, were wounded in, died in, and survived a particularly vicious war that introduced mustard gas and tanks to battlefields, made horrific use of barbed wire, generated the term “shell shock,” exposed thousands of soldiers to the indignities and diseases of trench warfare, and sowed the seeds of both the catastrophic Spanish Flu and World War II. While the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, does a superior job of explaining everything about the war, the Indiana World War Memorial is the place to go to honor those who actually lived it.

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