In 1953, the hill overlooking the James River along Belvidere Street was home to a couple of small buildings and a billboard for Purelube motor oil.

Three years later, it would become the site of glass and marble walls etched with 10,342 names of Virginians who died in World War II and the Korean War, a towering statue called Memory, and an eternal flame.

The Virginia War Memorial, the $900,000 tribute to fallen servicemen and women that has become one of Richmond’s most treasured landmarks, turns 60 on Monday.

“Since the dawn of history, it has been customary for governments to erect memorials, permanently expressing the appreciation of a grateful people for the patriotic service and heroic sacrifice of their sons and daughters in time of war,” John J. Wicker Jr., then chairman of the Virginia War Memorial Commission, wrote after the memorial opened.

“When everyone living today has passed away, this memorial will remain for the education and inspiration of generations unborn, and as tangible evidence that patriotic service of Virginians will never be forgotten.”

But for decades, the memorial often stood vacant atop Gambles Hill except for the few holidays each year, when a couple hundred people would come to pay their respects.

Even with its view and its prime spot at one of the gateways into Richmond, the memorial’s surroundings were so rough that many around the state questioned the idea to place it there. Until its demolition in 1992, the state penitentiary was one of the memorial’s most visible neighbors.

“For many years it was almost an afterthought. A lot of that had to do with where it was,” said Jeb Hockman, spokesman for the memorial.


By the mid-1990s, the eternal flame had been snuffed out, the reflecting pool was drained, and the wall filled with names was on the verge of collapse.

But a renewed focus by the state, which in 1997 hired its first employee to take care of the memorial, jump-started a transformation.

By 2010, a private fundraising effort along with state funding culminated with the opening of an educational center next to the shrine and an amphitheater on the backside of the hill. Since then, the memorial has become vastly busier, attracting many more visitors and hosting a variety of events.

The new building bears the names of Paul Galanti, a retired Navy officer who spent three years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and his wife, Phyllis, who died in 2014. It’s the biggest honor they ever had, said Paul Galanti, who still regularly visits the memorial, often to speak to groups of children.

“Have you looked in a history book lately? They talk about people manning barricades and protesting this and protesting that. A lot of my friends died, and a lot of my friends ended up being POWs,” Galanti said. “And a lot of really bad stuff happened there, and a lot of the publicity went to folks who didn’t do anything but just complained about it.”

Sharing the personal history of war veterans, as Galanti does, is one of the less visible elements of the memorial’s mission.

The educational center played host to more than 50 programs last year, bringing in students, Scouts and other groups. And war memorial staff travel the state to capture veterans’ stories and so far have amassed nearly 2,000 hours of video interviews that often are used in short films sent to classrooms across the state.

“If you just have names on a wall, you’re a cemetery almost,” Hockman said. “We want to make sure these people’s names are known and their stories are known.”


More than 12,000 names now are on the wall, which now includes the names of Virginians who died in Vietnam and Desert Storm.

Another addition is in the works, to make room for the Virginians killed since 2001 in what often is called the Global War on Terror. The expansion will include a second glass wall, a new education wing, a parking garage and a 300-seat auditorium.

Galanti, a former Navy pilot, compared the trajectory of the museum to one of the planes he used to fly, which “starts off rolling really slowly and starts building speed over speed.” More than 71,000 people visited the memorial last year.

On Monday at 5 p.m., a ceremony will commemorate that day 60 years ago when two Medal of Honor recipients and dignitaries from 10 countries came to Richmond to dedicate the memorial.

“Today we harvest the fruits these honored men planted, enjoy them in abundance beyond their powers to imagine,” Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, a native Virginian who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, said in a speech marking the memorial’s opening.

“But in life there is a responsibility co-equal with every privilege, and great as our privilege is today, our responsibility is no less. ... We have a responsibility to stand ready with all our strength to keep the Torch of Liberty before every American eye, the love of freedom alive in every American heart.”