Iwo Jima 40th Anniversary Exhibit at the Cannon House Office Building, 1985

It’s amazing what you can find at work.

When you work for an organization that’s been around since the 1920s, you are bound to come across some really interesting items untouched over the years. We aren’t talking Holy Grail here, but interesting nonetheless. One such item popped up at the office this week:


The edges were well worn and smelled faintly of mildew. Whatever pile of papers and books stacked above it stayed that way for a number of years – Dust marks of a forgotten past once again uncovered under fluorescent light thirty years later.

Looking at the faded poster, I knew I had to find more information about the exhibit. D.C. is home to thousands of art exhibit openings. It is a rare occurrence, however, to hear about one held in Congressional offices.

The Island War
In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima, a short art exhibition was held at the historic Cannon House Office Building in February-March 1985. The exhibit, titled “Island War: Marines in the Pacific,” drew from the collections of the Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Coast Guard. Shown above is a framed poster promoting the exhibition. It officially opened on 19 February 1985, exactly forty years after the opening of hostilities at Iwo.

Events commemorating the anniversary of Iwo Jima like the Cannon Building exhibit were held around the country in February. Americans took a moment to reflect on the sacrifices of few for the benefit of so many. The majority of participation from veterans was in Washington, D.C. One day before the 40th anniversary of the landings at Iwo, a large ceremony was held at the Washington Cathedral. Over 350 combat veterans of the battle were present. A ceremonial wreathe laying at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington and a meeting of veterans with President Reagan on the anniversary date rounded out the Capitol’s main commemorative efforts.

There was no mention of the exhibit opening  in the long Washington Post article covering the Cathedral event and wreath laying. Only two short mentions in the “Museum and Galleries” section of the Post have the exhibit listed during the exhibit’s run in February and March 1985.

Marines in Cannon

Cannon House Office Building (LOC Image #LC-H824-T-1144-004)
Cannon House Office Building (LOC Image #LC-H824-T-1144-004)

Located at the intersection of First Street and New Jersey Avenue, SE DC (bounded by First and C Streets), the Cannon House Office Building is a historic piece of architecture within the United States Capitol Complex, complete with elegant Beaux-Arts architecture and coffered dome. The Cannon building was the first set of Congressional offices outside the U.S. Capitol. Completed in 1908, the building is named for former Republican Speaker of the House and outspoken Woodrow Wilson critic Joseph Gurney Cannon. The USMC Museums Branch responsible for coordinating the exhibit displayed the artwork around the building’s picturesque rotunda.

According to an article about the exhibit written by Colonel Brooke Nihart in Fortitudine, the Congressional Marines Breakfast viewed the exhibit opening on the morning of 19 February, composed of former Marines now working on Capitol Hill in various capacities from Senators to Capitol Police (breakfast meetings are still a regular occurrence today). In the evening, the DC Council of the Navy League held a small reception in the Cannon Building.

Instructions to a Patrol by Capt Donald L. Dickson, USMCR.USMC Combat Art Collection
Instructions to a Patrol by Capt Donald L. Dickson, USMCR. USMC Combat Art Collection

Unfortunately, “there was too little art done of that battle to mount a full scale show,” said Nihart. Marine participation in battles from Guadalcanal to Okinawa filled gaps in the historical timeline around the rotunda’s Corinthian columns. All in all, twelve Marine combat artists were represented in the exhibit.

Screencap from Fortitudine Magazine, 1985.
Screencap from Fortitudine Magazine, 1985.

Col. Nihart’s summary of the exhibit is brief and heartfelt. He called the engagement at Iwo “the toughest nut to crack” of any theater during World War II. Few would disagree. By the end of the 36-day battle, over 6,000 men were dead, including one Navy Escort Carrier sunk by kamikazes. Nihart knew well about the combat stress and fatigue shown in each painting. Colonel Nihart himself was a World War II and Korean War veteran who fought at Wake Island and Okinawa as a gunnery officer aboard USS Saratoga.

Nihart also remarked on the need for such an anniversary. Such an event seems odd, so close to the 50th in 1995. Why not wait for ten more years? Nihart noted that in ten years, he would “see only about half of today’s number.” Most of the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima were well into their sixties by the mid 1980s. Today, only a handful is still alive. Let’s hope their memory never remains as faded and weighted down as the poster I found on a short art exhibit inside the Capitol thirty years ago.

To all the men who fought and died on the sands of Iwo: Semper Fi.

Source Information

McCombs, Phil. “From the Sands of Iwo Jima.” The Washington Post, February 19, 1985.

Nihart, Brooke. “Center Aids Observances of Iwo Jima 40th Anniversary.” Fortitudine 14, no. 3 (Winter 1984-1985): 10-12.

Schudel, Matt. “Marine Col. F. Brooke Nihart; Wrote Military Code of Conduct,” The Washington Post, September 30, 2006.


Past and Present: Latrobe Gate, Washington Navy Yard

If you are driving down 8th street near the Eastern Market and Barracks Row neighborhood of SE DC, you reach a dead end at its intersection with M street, one of the city’s main transportation arteries. Directly forward of that intersection is the Latrobe Gate at the Washington Navy Yard, one of the most historic pieces of architecture in the city. The gated structure is named after its designer, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Latrobe is most famous for conceptualizing the United States Capitol.

The Navy Yard itself inside the walls of the gate is a shell of its former self. Originally built in 1799 Much of the land in the 19th and 20th centuries swallowed by gentrified industry, corporations, and of course, baseball. It is Latrobe Gate that stands firm as a testament to the city’s stunning classic/Greek revival design.

The gate was designed by Latrobe in 1804 and constructed two years later. The double gateway is connected north and south by facades built four feet apart and connected by a double colonnade and hipped roof. The detail and craftsmanship is still stunning today, even with its long history of alterations beginning in 1823. It is one of the few structures to survive the burning of the Washington Navy Yard by the British in 1814.

Although the gate originally served as the Navy Yard’s main/ceremonial entrance, it now takes someone of an upper echelon flag rank to pass through it. If you think you will be able to walk through this piece of District history unmolested, think again. You are Balrog and the gate is Gandolf (No passing). Live with it. Admire it from afar or up close – just don’t try to walk through it.

The original gate stood as a one-story structure. It was later incorporated into a three-story late Victorian building in 1881 to house U.S. Marines. That structure forms the view still visible today by the general public and Navy Yard civilians and military. The gate made the Nation Register of Historic Places list in 1973.

Thankfully, I get to see this beautiful piece of architecture every day. I work inside the Navy Yard, just a football field away from the gate at the corner of Leutze Park and 8th Street. I took a second at work today to snap a photo from the inside of the Navy Yard looking out to M Street – the side many do not get to see. Looking at some of the images through time at the Library of Congress, it is surprising how little has changed. A few AC units here and there were placed on and subsequently taken off the Victorian building above the gate, along with several stylistic changes to the Marine guardhouse. According to a 2001 article in the New York Daily News, the guardhouse at Latrobe Gate is the oldest continuously manned Marine guardhouse in the U.S. Working at a place where so much has changed over the past couple of years, it’s comforting to know Mr. Latrobe’s work remains a pivotal piece of DC history.

Here are a few images of Latrobe Gate from the inside looking out:

Circa 1942 (U.S. Navy Photo NH# 91836)
Circa 1942 (U.S. Navy Photo NH# 91836)
Source: LOC Image # HABS DC,WASH,74--2)
1965 HABS Study (Source: LOC Image # HABS DC,WASH,74–2)
Marines at Gate, 1978 (NHHC Photo # KN-27599)
Marines at Gate, 1978 (NHHC Photo # KN-27599)
(Photo by Author, 12 MAR 2015)
(Photo by Author, 12 MAR 2015)

Source Information:

DeFrank, Thomas M. “Nation’s Fortresses Now Even Mightier.” New York Daily News, October 31, 2001.

Naval History and Heritage Command, “Latrobe Gate.” Accessed 12 MARCH 2015.

Cozy Bunks in the Patent Office, 1861

(Harpers Weekly, July 21, 1861)
(LOC Image: LC-USZ62-59276)

At the start of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 troops in the defense of the United States for 90 days – a time frame the Government felt would be enough to suppress the Rebellion. Rhode Island, a state whose staunch allegiance to the United States dates back before the American Revolution, was the first to answer the call and organize.

Packed tightly aboard transport ships, Rhode Island Militia Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside led a large contingent of troops to Washington, D.C. to ready for war.

Washington, D.C. was still a young city in 1861. The space required for soldiers was simply not there. Many units like the First Rhode Island Regiment were forced to find alternative quarters. The image above is a sketch from the June 1, 1861 edition of Harper’s Weekly. The image portrays the men of the First Rhode Island Regiment sleeping three to a bunk inside the U.S. Patent Office in NW DC. The short article accompanying the image detailed the Regiment’s short stay in the unorthodox barracks:

“Never since American inventive genius was first aroused did the Patent Office contain such remarkable models of American manufacture as those which now sleep three deep in ‘bunks’ spread along the edge of the cabinets; and to those students of mechanism who have been wont to restore to the Patent Office to work out unfinished problems and botch great inventions, the presence of the sturdy Rhode Islanders, and the stacks of eloquent muskets present a novel and a starling scene.”

The 90-day volunteers fought in the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. It would be their only combat experience. The Regiment left the DC area for home on July 25, 1861 and mustered out in early August. During the time in service, the First Rhode Island Regiment lost twenty-five men to combat and disease.

Source Information:

“Our Army at Washington.” Harpers Weekly, July 1, 1861.