The United States Marine Corps War Memorial is an iconic piece of American history. It is a tangible representation of fundamental American values — courage, perseverance, patriotism and honoring the “man in the arena” who has secured our nation’s freedom, often at a terrible price.
But who was behind the monument that is ingrained in so many American minds?
Of course, the monument is modeled after the famous picture of U.S. Marines raising the flag in Iwo Jima during WWII. The picture was taken by Joe Rosenthal, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, on February 23, 1945. However, it was Felix Weihs de Weldon who built the sculpture that many from around the country (and around the world) will travel so far to see.
De Weldon was born to a textile manufacturer in Austria on April 12, 1907. He was well educated abroad, and was quite intelligent — he earned his PhD by the time he was 22 years old. He also began his career in sculpture at a young age, and traveled as an artist throughout Spain, France, Italy and Britain, among other places. He even did a sculpture of the King of England, George V (and would later get honorary knighthood in 1959). Eventually he found his way to the Canada and then the place where he would eventually settle down: the United States.
That’s when WWII broke out.
De Weldon enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a “combat artist” out of Maryland, a job that still exists in some capacity today. He was in the middle of his service when he came across the famous Associated Press pictures snapped by Rosenthal. It made quite the impression upon him, and he immediately went to work on a wax sculpture of the picture. It was met with success and displayed in various places, during which time de Weldon completed his time in the service and got out of the military at the rank of Painter Second Class.
He was awarded his citizenship in 1945, and 11 years later he was appointed to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, where he would be re-appointed again and again during various president’s tenures.
The Marine Corps War Memorial we have today was commissioned in 1951, and he began his tedious work on the project. In short, he spent three years building the memorial out of plaster. This plaster was then disassembled, cast in bronze in Brooklyn, and shipped to the memorial site where it was assembled. It was completed and dedicated on November 10, 1954.
The memorial depicts five Marines: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, Private First Class Franklin Sousley, Private First Class Harold Schultz, Private First Class Ira Hayes, and Private First Class Rene Gagnon.
De Weldon is well known for his sculpture work, which includes thousands of pieces all over the globe. He also completed the National Monument in Malaysia, which depicts the Malaysian fight against Japanese occupation in WWII, as well is a general inspiration for the Malaysian people, much like the Marine Corps War Memorial for Americans. The Malaysian National Monument is actually the tallest bronze freestanding grouping in the world.
Felix de Weldon lived a long and full life, and he died in 2003 at the age of 96; he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, just next door to his masterpiece. He served the United States in both his military service, and his passion and art.
Featured image: Sculptor, Felix Weihs de Weldon, works on hands that will hold the flag of the U.S. Marine Corps memorial statue he is making in Washington, D.C., Dec. 24, 1949. The memorial depicts the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II. | AP Photo/Bill Chaplis
Felix de Weldon and the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial: