By CDR Byron (Jug) Varner, U.S. Nay (RET)

With the completion of its Visitors Center earlier this year, the U.S. Navy Memorial, Washington D.C., became a shining tribute to naval history, traditions, and millions of past, present, and future Navy personnel.

Authorized by Congress in 1980, but financed totally through private donations, the Navy Memorial Foundation dedicated the huge Memorial Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1987. Now, workers have completed the interior of the Memorial's 24,000 square feet Visitors Center, and it is open to the public free of charge. It is designated as an educational heritage awareness and support facility.

The Memorial is located across from the National Archives building, midway between the Capitol and the White House, and is adjacent to a Metro terminal for easy access by public transportation. It is fast becoming one of Washington's more popular tourist attractions.

Approaching the Memorial from Pennsylvania Avenue, one sees two white masts — with Old Glory flying from one and the Navy Flag from the other. Colorful signal flags stream down from both yardarms, forming an entryway into the 100-foot circular granite Plaza that replicates a world map.

Standing on this largest granite map in the world is Stanley Bleifield's seven-foot bronze sculpture, The Lone Sailor, a larger-than-life representation of all those who have served or will serve in the Navy. It is the hallmark of the Memorial. Two granite sculpture walls offer the largest art project of its kind ever attempted in the nation, with 22 bronze relief panels depicting historical events in various branches of the naval service. Fountains and waterfalls flank the Plaza, with a concert stage for performances by military bands from all military services.

Inside the street level entrance of the Visitors Center is the Quarterdeck, where another Bleifield sculpture, The Homecoming, portrays the joyous reunion of a Navy family. The area is bounded by a wave wall of illuminated glass panels etched with outlines of ships dating back to the beginning of the U.S. Navy. These glass panels lead the way down a spiral marble staircase to the spacious Gallery Deck.

On the Gallery Deck, electronic kiosks with finger touch controls allow visitors to see video displays of Navy ships, aircraft, and historical events. This level features the Ship's Store, Navy Memorial Log Room, Presidents Room, Burke Theater, and offices of the Navy Memorial Foundation. Its carpet design and color gives the illusion of ocean waves.

A computerized data record of present and former Navy personnel is contained in the Navy Memorial Log Room. Their names and photographs have been entered into the Log for a $25 tax-deductible donation to the Memorial Fund. Log entries scroll continuously on video screens in the Log Room, or are selected by name for individual display. It is the only place in the world where these names are written for future generations to see.

The U.S. Presidents Room honors eight American Presidents who have served the Navy. Original oil paintings of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush are displayed on the walls of this teleconference room.

A 250-seat Burke Theater honors the famed WWII destroyer skipper who later became the Chief of Naval Operations, Arliegh Burke and his wife Roberta. Its 18'x56' screen features the award-winning half-hour film At Sea, which features the excitement and adventure of Navy life.

The Ship's Store is filled with nautical treasures and mementos relating to the maritime theme of the Memorial and is the only shop of its kind in the nation's capital.

Since its opening, the Navy Memorial has become a popular site for Navy honors, ceremonies, reenlistments, reunions, etc., as well as wreath laying by ship and squadron associations.

Rear Admiral William Thompson, U.S. Navy (Retired), is the Foundation's first president and has been the prime catalyst in the success of the Memorial since its inception in 1978. He estimated there are 50,000 Navy veterans living in America today. Here are a few excerpts from his recent interview in Washington, D.C., for this article:

“Far too many Navy people are not yet aware of their Memorial. We need their awareness and, frankly, their financial help to pay for the Memorial and Visitors Center.

“We have about 190,000 people listed in the Memorial Log. Their names are enshrined here forever as a tribute to their naval service and their support for the Memorial. We need to add more names to expand the Logs historic value.

“I see the reaction of these Navy veterans when they display their name and photo on a Log Room screen. Their emotions break out like salt water across the deck — joy, pride, and sometimes sadness, particularly from survivors or next of kin. It is sometimes overwhelming. And out come the sea stories, especially when a couple of old sea dogs are together. Our Log Room attendants get an ear full!”

If you are active or former Navy and would like to record your name and photo, or that of a friend or loved one, contact the U.S. Navy Memorial toll free at 800-821-8892. Then visit the Memorial the next time you are in the nation's capital. It is well worth your time and experience.