KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Awed by an eight-plane flyover that left the sky streaked with plumes of red, white and blue contrails, thousands paused Thursday in the shadow of the nation’s official World War I monument in remembrance of the day a century ago that the U.S. entered the fight.
Melding equal measures of homage to American sacrifice with patriotism, the commemoration – “In Sacrifice for Liberty and Peace” – amounted to a multimedia time warp to April 6, 1917, when America begrudgingly joined the global conflict that President Woodrow Wilson had sought to avoid through neutrality.
With winds fluttering flags amid temperatures in the upper 40s, a few thousand ticketholders and dozens of foreign ambassadors watched a color guard clad as WWI-era “Doughboys” present the colors. Short films – one narrated by Kevin Costner, another by Gary Sinise – displayed on twin screens 25 feet tall offered documentary-style flashbacks. Ragtime music, military pomp and recitations of writings of the period filled voids between speeches, many of them by politicians.
Many who publicly spoke offered a nod to American sacrifice: By the time U.S. troops helped vanquish Germany and the conflict ended in 1918, more than 9 million people were lost to combat, some 116,000 of them Americans killed in what turned out to be a transformational war. A conflict initially fought by horseback and in dank, muddy trenches gave way to carnage by armored vehicles, air combat and German use of mustard gas.
“America entered the war to bring liberty, democracy and peace to the world after almost three years of unprecedented hardship, strife and horror,” retired Army Col. Robert Dalessandro, chairman of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission behind the commemoration, told the crowd. “We still live in the long shadow of World War I in every aspect of our lives.”
Kansas City’s selection as host of Thursday’s hours-long affair was no accident, given the hilltop setting’s 217-foot tall Liberty Memorial tower and the sprawling WWI museum below it.
The monument was built after a burst of postwar patriotism that over 10 days in 1919 raised $2.5 million, the equivalent to more than $30 million today.
So noteworthy was the achievement that Allied commanders from Belgium, Great Britain, Italy, France and the U.S. gathered in 1921 to dedicate the site, across the street from the Kansas City train station that more than half of U.S. troops passed through before being shipped overseas.
When the monument was completed five years later, more than 150,000 turned out to hear President Calvin Coolidge dedicate it. Cast on Thursday by Mayor Sly James – a former Marine – as one of Kansas City’s “crown jewels,” the site last year drew 200,000 visitors spanning more than 70 countries.
“For the past 91 years, people from across the globe have come to learn and remember,” said the museum’s CEO, Matt Naylor, who displays in his office the shaving kit his British grandfather used as a WWI infantryman in France.
Missouri’s link to the war also wasn’t lost on Gov. Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL. He lauded that the state was the birthplace of Frank Buckles, who until his 2011 death at age 110 was the war’s last surviving U.S. veteran.
Across the Atlantic on Thursday, France staged its own centennial observance.
French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged diplomats and veterans at Paris’ U.S. embassy to remember “the courage of America and the millions of soldiers that came to fight at our side.” Le Drian added that French soldiers who attended the Kansas City event demonstrated that “our countries are coming together around a common history.”
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