Superstitions and Clues to Life on the Home Front at the World War II Memorial in DC

My boys must have already worn a look of boredom when we walked up to the World War II Memorial.  As we approached the memorial from the Washington Monument, a kind Honor Flight Network volunteer approached us and taught my boys and myself a fascinating piece of history that’s represented in one of the bas-relief panels that line the approach to the fountain at the heart of the memorial.

She asked us to examine a panel on the north (Atlantic Front.)  Shown in the panel is a B-17 plane and crew readying the plane for flight.  On the far right of the panel is the rear view of a man that appears to be urinating.  Then my boys and I learned that many crew members shared the superstitious belief that urinating on the rear wheel of the plane would grant them luck in their mission

Of course, it also likely served the purpose of relieving themselves before a long flight and any inconvenient ways to urinate while in flight.  This tiny piece of information and story completely changed my boys’ attitude and engaged them with a piece of history they found humorous and definitely related to.  Other superstitious beliefs shared by plane crews included hanging dice, small objects worn inside flight uniforms, and some even danced on airplane wings with umbrellas.

What Can the Bas-Relief Panels Teach You about World War II?

bas relief WW2 memorial
Here the Americans meet the Russians at the Elbe River on April 25, 1945 and learn that women were fighting in combat with the men. Do you see the woman in this panel? What else do you notice about the soldiers?

Looking at the scenes depicted in the 24 panels is always a treat when visiting the memorial, because each depicts an aspect of life or warfare during the war and gives a great summary of the unfolding of WWII.  The panels on the north primarily show aspects of life in the Atlantic theater of war.  Those on the south, illustrate events related to the Pacific, including a family listening to news reports about Pearl Harbor.

The World War II Memorial is ultimately a tribute to the unity and sacrifice of Americans, here are a few ways these two attributes are depicted in the memorial and a few questions you can ask your children to spark a discussion about them.

Questions to Ask Your Kids as You Look at the Panels at the World War II Memorial

World War II truly affected the lives of every American.  As you look at the panels…

  • Can you find an image of what your life might have been like during World War II?
  • What kinds of sacrifices were made?  (Families rationed food and grew Victory Gardens.  Children bought stamps for war bonds instead of candy.)
  • What were some of the roles women played at home and abroad? (Women expanded their roles and took on new types of jobs. Did you know 57% of people employed outside the military were women?!)
  • What did regular citizens do to help soldiers in battle? (Farmers and factory workers increased their efforts. Kids collected cooking grease and scrap metal for making bombs.)
  • What types of warfare evolved to be essential to victory? (Tanks, planes, submarines, and aircraft carriers drastically altered warfare and tactics.)

The National Park Service has put together a great summary of all 24 bas relief panels and what they mean here.

What Do the Gold Stars Represent at the World War II Memorial?

WW2 Memorial stars
Photo Credit: Alysia D.P. Malmström

Side Note: Every part of the World War II Memorial has meaning. We are only sharing a couple of the major elements here, but you can click here to learn more about the parts we haven’t covered.

In the center of the Memorial Plaza is the Reflecting Pool and a wall of gold stars, known as the Freedom Wall.  During the war, if a family had a loved one serving in the military they would often display a flag with a blue star on a white background with a red border in a window of their home.  If a loved one died while serving in the military, families replaced the blue star with a gold star. 

The 4,048 stars hung on the Freedom Wall each represent approximately 100 soldiers who died during the war.  Their lives are the, “Price of Freedom.”

What Do the Pillars and Rope Represent?

WW2 memorial rope
  • How many pillars are in the World War II Memorial? 
  • Why aren’t they in alphabetical order?
  • Why do you think there is a rope joining all of them together?

There are 56 pillars in the memorial. Each is labeled with a state, territory, or district that was part of the United States of America during World War II.   The columns are in chronological order and alternate sides from when the state or territory officially entered the United States of America (or ratified the Constitution.)  Delaware and Pennsylvania lead the way.  A sculpted rope signifying the unity and solidarity Americans displayed joins each column.

Who is the Honor Flight Network?

boys WW2 memorial
Photo Credit: Alysia D.P. Malmström

I mentioned earlier that it was the Honor Flight Network volunteer who helped spark renewed interest for my boys in the memorial. The Honor Flight Network organization  strives to provide veterans with the opportunity to visit the WWII memorial and honor their sacrifices. 

If you happen to visit the monument during one of the Honor Flight visits they often have period actors and artifacts on display near the small visitor’s center to the south of the monument.  You might also get to see some of the veterans who made the history that the memorial pays homage to.  Say Hi! and thank them.

More Ideas for Talking to Your Kids About Life on the Home Front

The National Park Service offers a Junior Ranger Program for the National Mall, which covers the World War 2 Memorial. We love this program and highly recommend it. It’s free.


I am a chronic wanderer and enjoy exploring the mid-Atlantic area. I've been toting my children along many of my adventures for years. As a result, my list of "must see" things keeps growing, rather than shrinking.

Related Articles