WASHINGTON — The soldiers, sailors and airmen who defeated Hitler and Tojo won't be held back by a few low fences and some yellow tape.
Groups of World War II veterans from Iowa and Mississippi entered the memorial to their service on Tuesday, defying barriers and National Park Service signs declaring it closed as a result of the ongoing government shutdown.
John Kleinschmidt, 87, of Ames, Iowa, said the barriers were opened enough for his group to walk through freely by the time he arrived. Kleinschmidt trained as a flight engineer during World War II but was never deployed abroad.
“It's unfortunate that this is what happens when they know that there are busloads of veterans coming down here, and they don't have the good sense to say, 'Keep the damn thing open,' ” Kleinschmidt said. “These are the guys that created it.”
The Honor Flight Network brings groups of World War II veterans from across the country for free to visit the memorial built in their honor on an almost daily basis.
The Mississippi veterans arrived before the Iowans and were confronted with the closed memorial. They decided to push through with the help of members of Congress.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told reporters that he aided and abetted the act of civil disobedience by distracting a guard while others broke through the barricades.
Someone was playing bagpipes as the Mississippians streamed into the memorial. The Iowans arrived a short time later.
“It was one of those moving times in life,” King said.
National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said park rangers enjoy greeting the veterans. The memorial was closed, she said, because of an order to close all park service grounds to protect the sites and keep visitors safe while more than 300 workers are furloughed.
“This is not something the park service wanted to do. We'd like to get back to work,” Johnson said.
Charles Ricketts, a veteran from Ames, Iowa, blamed Congress, not the National Park Service, for nearly ruining his group's trip.
“I'm not impressed with Congress' ability or the president,” he said. “They're not showing us much leadership and judgment.”
King put the blame on the administration, saying there was no rationale to using government resources to essentially board up an open-air memorial.
He also suggested there was no way the decision to close it could have been made without White House approval.
“This will go down in history as the most spiteful act of a commander-in-chief,” King said.
That kind of talk brought a rebuke from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who agreed that the memorial should not be closed but said King was exploiting the situation in a way that is not befitting of a member of Congress.
“Shameful,” Harkin said. “To politicize an absolutely nonpartisan, bipartisan monument to our World War II veterans to me is shameful.”
He also took a shot at King for making those statements despite a lack of military service.
“To come from someone who didn't even serve in uniform like I did,” Harkin said. “Before he starts criticizing people and our commander-in-chief, who did not put on the uniform either, perhaps he ought to put on the uniform first and defend our country. I don't take that lightly.”
Harkin said he arrived at the memorial on Tuesday before King or the veterans groups and was surprised to find the barricades in place. He said he walked around them and into the memorial to speak to a park ranger, who seemed to sympathize with the suggestion that the veterans should be able to walk around the memorial. Harkin said he asked what would happen if he just moved the fencing and let the veterans in and the ranger seemed to suggest that would be OK.
“He just smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders,” Harkin said.
Harkin called the Secretary of the Interior and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. The secretary didn't return the call but McDonough did.
Harkin said he told McDonough that while Republicans should reopen the government, it makes no sense to close an open air memorial where people walk around at all hours normally without any big presence of supervising personnel.
“One act of nonsense should not lead to just another act of nonsense,” Harkin said he told McDonough.
“We've heard about this, we're on it,” Harkin said McDonough told him.
Harkin said he had to return to the Capitol before the veterans entered.
By midafternoon, the veterans had departed the memorial and other tourists were milling around the memorial. Then officers began shooing them out again and saying the memorial was closed.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote to the Secretary of the Interior pressing for the monument to be open.
"These veterans who fought to save Americans’ freedom and liberty are being denied maybe the only chance they have to see their memorial. The barriers should not have been placed to prevent these veterans from seeing the monument to their sacrifice," Grassley said. "The federal government’s closure shouldn’t impact an open air monument that is available at all times of the day. It just doesn’t meet the common sense test."
King indicated he would fight to keep it and other service memorials on the National Mall open, however.
“This is not going to go away,” King said. “The buses are going to keep coming. The memorial is going to have to stay open.”
This report contains material from the Associated Press.