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ASU team helps make WWll memorial a reality

Michael Underhill watches lowering of guns from USS Arizona and USS Missouri.
November 26, 2013

Arizona State University faculty, staff and students played prominent roles in the planning and design of "Guns to Salute the Fallen," a memorial to World War II veterans that will be dedicated Dec. 7. Hundreds of World War II veterans and several Pearl Harbor survivors are expected to attend the ceremony.

Located at Wesley Bolin Plaza at the State Capitol, just east of the State House, the “Salute to the Fallen” consists of two gun barrels from two historically significant flagships of the U.S. Navy: the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri.

The first ship, the USS Arizona, was sunk in the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan that launched the United States’ entry into World War II. The gun barrel at Bolin Plaza was off the ship for maintenance when the attack occurred, according to Michael Underhill, interim dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and faculty in The Design School, who also served as architect for the project. The second ship, the USS Missouri, is where Japanese forces surrendered in 1945, marking the end of the war.

Between the two gun barrels sits a set of blue steel frames modeled on the shape of the ribs of the ship’s bow. Hanging from the frames are more than 1,900 steel name plates, each inscribed with the name of someone from the state of Arizona who lost his or her life in World War II.

The project was spearheaded by Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who first learned of the existence of a remaining gun barrel from the USS Arizona through John Thomas, a former attorney in the Arizona House of Representatives, back in 2011.

Bennett was immediately intrigued. As a child, he said, he was upset by the idea that American soldiers had been caught off guard at Pearl Harbor, and remains fascinated to this day with anything that has to do with the watershed event. He not only managed to track down the gun barrel Thomas told him about through the Navy’s Department of Inactive Ships, he also learned of the existence of the gun from the USS Missouri.

In addition, Bennett saw to it that no tax dollars were used by the state in the making of the memorial. Instead, “everything was donated by private contractors or providing services or goods,” even the hauling of the barrels across the country by railroad.

Bennett enlisted the help of SDB, a Tempe construction management firm; Schuff Steel, a major steel fabricator; and Tutor Perini Construction, who donated all of the concrete work. He had an architecture firm start design on the memorial, but when the firm bowed out because of liability issues, Bennett approached ASU President Michael Crow, who in turn asked Underhill to put together a team to help finish the project, pro bono.

“We did all of the technical design,” Underhill said of The Design School team. “All of the refinements of the design. The structural engineering, landscape architecture, architectural detailing; all of the things that needed to be done so that the project could get finished.”

Underhill noted that the situation was unusual for the university. “We usually do it the other way around. We do the preliminary design thinking (and then somebody else does the technical end). President Crow said that was the reverse of a normal case, but because it’s a donation, and to support the effort of the Secretary of State, we’re going to do it.”

Other ASU faculty and staff involved were Greg Brickey, associate professor of practice in The Design School, who served as the structural engineer; Joseph Ewan, associate professor of landscape architecture, who served as the landscape architect; and Patrick Plehn, prototype/modeling shop manager, who coordinated the production of the stainless steel name plates.

The ASU team also oversaw the construction of the memorial. The groundbreaking took place in October 2012, and the first concrete pour took place this past summer.

“I had to be there for the pours,” Underhill said. “They had 15 concrete trucks for the foundations. We had to pour the concrete at two in the morning because it’s too hot to pour concrete otherwise.”

He pointed out that most cities in the U.S. wouldn’t have had a crane large enough to ease the gun barrels onto their mounts, and that watching the guns go in – “without incident, no cracks” – was “not unscary.”

Underhill has a personal connection to the memorial: His father was in the Navy and served in the Pacific during the Second World War. “Ken Bennett had family in the Navy,” Underhill said, “and we found that over and over again, other people involved with the project had some kind of connection (to the memorial)."

That includes Russell Wisniewski, an undergraduate in The Design School, who served in the Navy before deciding to attend ASU’s Design School, and worked as the computer-aided design specialist on the project.

“I think it’s interesting to know why specific things happened in the design,” Wisniewski said, pointing to the steel name plates as an example. “That was a decision that we spent months laboring over,” he said, “because it was about finding the right material. The vision was that ... they’d flutter in the breeze and reflect the sun and glisten like the sea. That was our goal.”

Bennett noted that employees at the State Capitol have been helping to hang the name plates. “One guy who took the letter 's' ended up hanging his uncle’s name plate,” Bennett said. “And that got around, and more people started showing up hanging those plates.”

Wisniewski said that he was “super excited” to see the results of everyone’s efforts on a recent visit to the site of the memorial.

“When you’re standing right in front of (the wall of name plates), it kind of reflects you,” he said. “And then when it moves, it’s like the ocean. So there are lots of levels of understanding this piece that’s about all these people who served.”

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