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At the state Capitol, a longstanding tribute to lives lost in WWI


At the state Capitol, a longstanding tribute to lives lost in WWI

May 29, 2023 | 3:15 am ET
By Bill Lucia
At the state Capitol, a longstanding tribute to lives lost in WWI
The sun sets on the "Winged Victory" World War I memorial in Olympia on Sunday, May 28, 2023. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Eighty-five years ago, on Memorial Day in 1938, a crowd gathered on the state Capitol grounds in Olympia to dedicate a war memorial that had been nearly two decades in the making.

The idea for a statue honoring those from Washington state who died in the war was first put forward by Gov. Ernest Lister in 1919–the year after an armistice signed by Germany and the Allies ended over four years of grinding battle on the war’s Western Front. The state Legislature approved $50,000 for the memorial, equivalent to about $900,000 today. But it wasn’t until 1927 that plans for the monument, known as “Winged Victory,” were approved.

A May 30, 1938 edition of The Daily Olympian described “solemn and patriotic” ceremonies at the memorial site, while on the city’s streets that day, “marchers filed, many of them the same men who marched away to a war more than two decades ago–and were fortunate enough to march back.” Two mothers who lost their sons to the war, Mrs. Charles V. Leach and Mrs. Cordelia Cater, unveiled the bronze statue, according to the newspaper.

At the state Capitol, a longstanding tribute to lives lost in WWI
The unveiling of the World War I memorial, known as “Winged Victory,” on the state Capitol grounds, on Memorial Day 1938. (Photo courtesy of Washington State Archives)

The statue was made by Alonzo Victor Lewis, a sculptor known for his bronze work and who completed other sculptures in the Pacific Northwest of historical and military figures. These included the controversial 12-foot-tall “Doughboy” in Seattle, a memorial to World War I infantry soldiers that was installed about six years before the Olympia memorial was finished. 

World War I, triggered by the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is often remembered as the advent of a more modern, mechanized, and violent form of warfare–with powerful artillery, machine guns, aircraft, tanks, and poison gas deployed with horrifically lethal effects. All told, about 8.5 million soldiers died of wounds or disease. 

At the state Capitol, a longstanding tribute to lives lost in WWI
An undated sketch for the marine featured in the “Winged Victory” sculpture. (Image courtesy of Washington State Archives)

The U.S. joined the war in 1917 and Washington’s residents didn’t escape its toll. 

In total, 60,617 officers and enlisted personnel entered the armed forces from Washington during the war, according to a history of the state’s National Guard written during the 1950s and 1960s. Of them, this record says, 1,642 were killed in action, died of wounds from fighting, or perished from illness or in accidents. A 1920 document from the U.S. War Department, held by the National Archives, lists the names of over 900 members of the Army and National Guard, from Washington state, who died while part of the American Expeditionary Forces.

The Olympia memorial commemorating these lost lives features a sailor, soldier, and marine, with a 12-foot-tall rendition of Nike of Samothrace, a statue of the Greek goddess of victory, standing behind them, along with a Red Cross nurse. The figures stand atop a granite base.

Lewis, in a 1936 letter to the state’s lands commissioner, said the plaster model for the sculpture would probably weigh four tons. He said he had no way of knowing the weight of the bronze figures, but guessed each would be 2,700 to 6,500 pounds.

At the state Capitol, a longstanding tribute to lives lost in WWI
Alonzo Victor Lewis surveys his work on the plaster version of his “Winged Victory” sculpture. The note on the photo is addressed to Gov. Clarence Martin, who held office from 1933 to 1941. (Photo courtesy of Washington State Archives)

Altogether the statue ended up costing $100,000, with a federal grant covering some of it.

The memorial was rededicated in 2008, following extensive restoration work, including welding and other repairs in about 60 places, and around 20 gallons or more of water drained from the figures. 

Brent Chapman, the Capitol campus horticulturist and grounds property manager, said the sculpture had masonry upgrades a few months ago and that it is due for a round of metal preservation this year. That work is handled by specialized contractors, not state staff. Chapman said Friday afternoon he had just walked around the memorial, as well as one nearby honoring those who served in World War II, and both were looking good. “We just take a lot of pride in having them maintained for eternity,” he said.

At the state Capitol, a longstanding tribute to lives lost in WWI
A view of the north-facing side of the sculpture. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)

Late Sunday, on a summer-like evening, it was mostly quiet at the World War I monument. The figures face east and the setting sun was golden on their backs and on an inscription on that side of the statue. “Their sacrifice was to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world,” it reads. 

A handful of people strolled by, but “Winged Victory” mostly seemed to escape notice. At its base, someone had leaned a single bouquet of a half-dozen red roses, a small token to those from our state who had their lives cut short in a war now more than a century gone and fading into history. The memorial’s metal and stone, with all of its weight, still stand proudly though, helping to ensure they are not forgotten.