KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — By design, World War I never strays from Matt Naylor’s thoughts: His grandfather’s wartime shaving kit is on display in his office where he oversees a museum in Kansas City, Missouri, dedicated to all things involving “The Great War.”
“I have a familial relationship with World War I that’s very direct,” said Naylor, whose father, after serving with the British during World War II, moved to Australia, where Naylor was raised and acquired his lasting accent. That lineage “is an important part of my story.”
So it is little wonder that Naylor embraces Thursday, when the National World War I Museum and Memorial he guides as president and CEO hosts a centennial observance of the day the U.S. begrudgingly waded into the global conflict that President Woodrow Wilson had sought to avoid.
In the shadow of the hilltop site’s 217-foot-tall monument known as the Liberty Memorial Tower, foreign dignitaries are joining 3,000 onlookers who snapped up tickets for the daylong homage titled “In Sacrifice for Liberty and Peace.” The event started with patriotic music and a video showing the story of a soldier, narrated by actor Gary Sinise and broadcast on two massive screens.
The event on the grounds of the nation’s official World War I monument was to feature an eclectic mix of patriotic music, some poetry, speeches and readings from the time America first declared war on Germany.
To Naylor, the event “is commemorating, not celebrating” the moment when the U.S. trudged off to war at a time tanks and air combat were new.
By the time American military muscle helped vanquish Germany and the conflict ended in 1918, more than 9 million people were lost to combat, some 116,000 of them Americans.
“World War I may not be part of the cultural narrative,” Naylor, whose grandfather served with the British in France a century ago, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “But it is a defining period of history that reshaped the U.S. and birthed the American century. This gives us an opportunity to honor that.”
He figures the memorial’s selection for the centennial was a nod to the city’s push to make the monument happen, thanks to a burst of postwar patriotism that over 10 days in 1919 raised $2.5 million – the equivalent to about $35 million today. Children pitched in, going door-to-door collecting money in what was “an early 20th century story of crowdsourcing,” museum spokesman Mike Vietti said.
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.
But years of deferred maintenance led the site to be closed in 1994. A massive $102 million transformation followed, funded by a sales tax, bond issue and private donations. The exterior was repaired, and the design firm behind attractions such as Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum was tapped to create a new museum that would tell World War I’s story of assassination, empires swept away and new nations born.
The site – its 200,000 visitors last year spanning more than 70 countries – was made official in legislation that President Barack Obama signed in 2014.