Navy and Marine Memorial

A statue of waves and gulls with red flowers in the foreground.
The Navy and Marine Memorial (sometimes referred to a "Waves and Gulls") with the Washington Monument in the distance.


Standing beside the Mount Vernon Trail in Lady Bird Johnson Park is a large sculpture of a crashing wave with seven seagulls flying above. This is the Navy and Marine Memorial, a monument which honors members of the U.S. Navy and Marine Services who lost their lives at sea. It is not solely a war memorial but also a tribute to those who died in storms, shipwrecks, and other maritime disasters while serving their country. Designed by the Italian sculptor Ernesto Begni del Piatta, when it was constructed, it became the first naval memorial in Washington, D.C. The text on the monument was written by New York journalist Royal Cortissoz. It reads:

"To the strong souls and ready valor of those men of the United States who in the Navy, the merchant marine and other paths of activity upon the waters of the world have given life or still offer it in the performance of heroic deeds, this monument is dedicated by a grateful people."

The movement to memorialize naval and marine servicemembers began in January 1924 (in the aftermath of World War I), when Marion Thurber Denby, the wife of the Secretary of the Navy, gathered several influential citizens at her home to create the Navy and Marine Memorial Association. To secure federal support, the association pledged that it would raise the $375,000 needed for the memorial through private donations. The bill to authorize the memorial’s creation passed through Congress and gained President Calvin Coolidge’s approval on February 16, 1924.

Soon, the monument effort ran into strong headwinds. First, there was a debate about where it would be located. Its supporters wanted it at Hains Point in East Potomac Park, but when the Fine Arts Commission rejected that idea on account of the unstable ground, they settled for a site on Columbia Island. This would still allow the memorial to use the Potomac River as a backdrop. Even with the location settled, other issues lay ahead. In 1931, before the official groundbreaking could take place, the nearby Hoover Airfield complained that the proposed monument would lay in its direct flight path. With the memorial planned to be fifty feet taller than the runway, the airfield claimed it would disorient pilots and cause crashes. It even threatened to cease operations if the memorial was constructed. The standoff was resolved when the Bureau of Public Roads promised to place lamps on the bridge over Boundary Channel to guide pilots at night.

Waves and Gulls Inscription
The inscription on the Navy and Marine Memorial.


Though the project had already received federal approval and the wave sculpture had already been cast, one more nearly insurmountable obstacle lay ahead. The bill authorizing the memorial explicitly stated that “the United States shall be put to no expense in or by the erection or maintenance of the said memorial.” However, by 1934, the Navy and Marine Memorial Association still needed $189,634. At the height of the Great Depression, it was unlikely they could refill their empty coffers on their own. Therefore, the association turned to Congress for help. Disappointingly, multiple funding bills failed. The main source of disagreement was whether taxpayer money should be used to pay for an elaborate sea-green granite base for the memorial. The sculptor, Ernesto Begni del Piatto, spent years arguing for it, refusing to take no for an answer. Support for the expensive granite base faded after del Piatto’s 1939 death. One year later, the National Park Service agreed to use $39,000 from the Works Progress Administration’s fund to provide landscaping to finish the memorial instead. It was not what the artist envisioned, but at last, the memorial was complete.

Today, the memorial is a familiar site to travelers on the George Washington Memorial Parkway and Mount Vernon Trail. The seven seagulls sculpted on the monument represent the witnesses of sacrifice on all seven seas. Below the textured rocky surface of the water, the waves are swirling and crashing to portray imminent dangers faced by servicemembers on the sea. It serves as a reminder that not everyone who gave their life in the service of their country did so during wartime. Their sacrifices are also worthy of remembrance.

Last updated: October 11, 2022

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