What are some of the hidden spots at the Washington, DC memorials?
Did you know there are a lot of hidden spots at the Washington, DC memorials? It’s true, take it from a tour guide. As you know, a trip to America’s capital city, Washington, DC, would absolutely not be complete without seeing all of the memorials on the National Mall. We, of course, recommend that you take a walking tour with a knowledgeable guide but if you can’t make it or if you’ve been to DC often and already know most of the big take-aways from the memorials, here are a handful of lesser known spots, secrets, and hidden gems of the memorials on the National Mall. You can choose what you’d like to call them, just make sure you find them on your next trip to DC. AND! In case you missed it, We chatted a bit about the memorials (and cherry blossoms) on the National Mall on our very first podcast, available here or for free on Apple Podcasts.
Spot all of the hidden gems at the Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial: Dedicated in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is truly an American icon. I could talk specifically about this memorial for a long time but we are here to focus!
First, and especially at dusk/night, walk up the stairs and around to the back of the memorial. Yes, the back. Here, you’ll have a beautiful view of the memorial bridge. Those bronze Art Deco and Neoclassical statues that you can see at the entrance of the bridge as well as the entrance to Rock Creek Parkway are called the Arts of War and Arts of Peace. If you look out in front of you like you’re staring at Arlington National Cemetery, which is directly on the other side of the Memorial Bridge, you might notice a small flame in the distance at eye level. Look closely. Do you see it? That’s the eternal flame at the grave of JFK. Make sure to add Arlington National Cemetery to your list of things to do in Washington, DC. It is truly an incredible experience.
Next, walk into the atrium where the 19 foot statue of America’s 16th and first assassinated president, Abraham Lincoln, sits. Here, there are a couple of things to find. First, on the north wall (if you are staring into the face of Lincoln that’s the wall to your right) reads Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address. You’re looking for a mistake in the speech. If you look closely enough, there was once carved a letter E within the speech (to begin the word “future”) that was meant to be the letter F. To correct this, the E was filled in a bit to form an F but the mistake is still evident.
Now walk back to the front of Lincoln’s statue. If you’re staring at Lincoln in the face walk around to your left and head to the back side of the statue. Yes, the back. This would be Lincoln’s right ear. So, first are foremost, this next bit is a MYTH. But it’s still fun. There’s a story that the face of Lincoln’s rival–we will call them rivals though the real story is much longer and more detailed than that–Robert E. Lee is carved into the back of Lincoln’s head. If you use your imagination here, you might notice the profile view of a face that situates itself within Lincoln’s hair. What do you see? Have fun with it.
Last, as you make your way down the steps, don’t forget to stop roughly a third of the way down where the granite changes color a bit. Etched into the ground it reads “I Have a Dream.” It’s at this spot that MLK gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963. The etching was added in 2003 to mark the 40th anniversary of the speech.
Bonus: Did you know that during WWII, the Lincoln Memorial was the only building in the continental US to be struck with an artillery shell. At wartime, the Army decided to place numerous anti-aircraft guns on office building rooftops around downtown DC. One day during a lunchtime, an unnamed office worker was fiddling around with one of these guns and accidentally fired a shell which hit the memorial and caused minor damage. Whoops.
Find Kilroy at WWII
Opened in 2004, the WWII Memorial is one of the most beautiful on the national mall. Tucked completely out of the way on each side of the memorial is a graffiti doodle of a man’s bald head just peaking out above a wall that his nose hangs over and fingers clutch. The phrase that goes along with the doodle is “Kilroy was here.” During WWII, it was common for US soldiers overseas to leave this doodle at places they had visited, been stationed, etc. Think of it as a way one American soldier left a universal note for the next American solider or passerby letting them know that they too can understand this experience. That’s the way I’ve always interpreted it, anyway. The British had a similar character named Chad and the Australians had a character named Foo during WWI.
Finding it at the WWII Memorial in DC is a little tricky so if you’re totally lost, ask a park ranger but here’s the best way I can explain the locations (there are two). If you are looking at the back wall of the memorial that has over 4,000 gold stars on it called the Freedom Wall, the doodles are placed to the side and behind that wall near what I would like to think is the pump house for the waterfalls. So, make your way to the outside of the memorial and walk along the perimeter of the columns with states names until you are at the very back. When you come to a point where you can’t walk anymore (there is a gate to keep you out of what, again, I think is the pump house) you will see the “Kilroy was here” doodle. It’s located in the same place on both sides of the memorial.
Understand the different symbols and mementos on the Vietnam wall
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is, for me, the most emotional memorial in DC. I’ve seen grown men in tears at this memorial on multiple occasions. For many, the scars of the Vietnam war still sting regularly. There are so many things to explain about how this memorial was conceived and picking up on all of the symbolism and nuances (that’s what walking tours are for!) but I’ll leave you here with a couple of important elements. First, next to each name you will see a very small symbol. The diamond shape is for those soldiers who were killed in action. If you see a small cross next to a name, it means the solider is still noted as missing in action. Keep looking closely, as sometimes you’ll notice a symbol that is a cross with a diamond shape imposed on it. There have been numerous instances where a solider was listed as missing in action and his remains were found long after, changing his status on the wall.
Second, and especially if you are visiting the wall on or around Memorial Day, Father’s Day, or Veterans Day, you’ll probably see some mementos that visitors have left on the wall. Typically, it’s flowers or letters (a lot of school groups choose to write and leave letters to soldiers they’ve studied) but in my personal experience, I’ve seen baseball mitts, boxes of cereal, a bottle of whiskey with shots poured next to it, countless photos, stuffed animals, dog tags, motorcycle vests, and Army gear. One guy in the past left his Harley Davidson motorcycle at the wall. So what happens to all of this stuff? Well, volunteers at the memorial come along every couple of days or so (depending on the volume of the objects left, weather, etc) and collect and catalog all of these items which are then stored in warehouses in nearby Maryland. Nothing is thrown away. Soon, they will begin building a plaza to the west side of the memorial that will showcase some of the items left at the wall. If you have time for a video, CBS This Morning did a great piece on the mementos left at the wall–it really is just incredible.
Learn About a Specific Wreath and Dog at the Korean War Memorial
The elements of the Korean War Memorial are some of the most symbolic and just really cool. Especially at night, it’s almost eerie. The memorial commemorates the nearly six million Americans who were involved in the war and the large granite wall you see as part of the memorial features all sorts of faces from those involved in the war, airmen, soldiers, nurses, clergymen, etc. It also features one German Shepard dog symbolizing one of the 26th Scout Dog Platoon that arrived in Korea in 1951. Over a thousand dogs were used during the war to aid in warning soldiers of approaching enemy.
During your visit to the memorial, you’ll also notice a uniquely decorated wreath at the head of the memorial, typically near the small reflection pool. There’s a placard on it that reads something along the lines of “In our Remembrance Forever; the Seoul Class of 1963.” The wreath is always beautiful and is most often very decorated for whatever holiday falls near–I’ve see it incorporate a lit jack-o-lantern for Halloween, dozens of pastel eggs for Easter, paper fans made out of the American Stars & Stripes near the 4th of July, the list really goes on. Once a week, a representative from the South Korean Embassy comes to lay the wreath, as a way of saying thank you and acknowledging the continuing supportive relationship between the two countries.
Discover a missing quote on the MLK bust
Today, when you visit the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC you’ll notice that on one side of his bust, there reads a quote “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.” The other side of his bust is blank. However, when the memorial opened in 2012, this was not the case. Originally, the opposite side of the MLK bust read, “I Was a Drum Major for Peace, Justice, and Righteousness.” I would say that it’s widely agreed upon that MLK was indeed all of these things but supporters of the memorial argued that this quote was taken entirely out of context from his “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon he gave on February 4th, 1968 (one of his last sermons before his assassination in April of that year). Essentially, what MLK was saying in his sermon was that IF people wanted to call him a “drum major,” call him a drum major for these things–which is distinctly different from an “I AM” statement. Therefore, less than a year after the memorial opened, the bust was covered in scaffolding and the quote was completely erased.
As we’ve said before on the podcast, our absolute favorite walking tour company in DC is DC by Foot, as they offer excellent “pay what you want” type walking tours all over the city. As a reminder, all of their guides work strictly for gratuity, so please make sure you show them your appreciation at the end of any tour. They are some of the absolute best in the business.
If you have any questions or comments about the memorials in Washington, DC let us know below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org