Check Out Mammoth Cave's Hidden World War I Memorial

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(National Park Service)

In the years between the first and second world wars, most people thought World War I really was the “War to End All Wars,” and they reacted appropriately. Memorials were raised all over the country to men who died in the trenches “over there.”

At the time, there weren’t really national memorials dedicated to those who died in America’s wars, and those that were built weren’t in Washington, D.C.

A national memorial to the Civil War’s Union soldiers was dedicated on the grounds of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1897. The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri -- then called the Liberty Memorial -- was dedicated by Congress in 1926.

There are dozens of federally administered monuments, cemeteries and memorials around the world. The nation’s first national memorial was erected in 1780, dedicated to Revolutionary War Gen. Richard Montgomery. Montgomery was killed during the battle to take the war to Quebec.

World War I saw the return of the remains of the Unknown Soldier, who was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a national memorial to those whose remains are unidentified long after the war’s end.

Until the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was finished in 1982, there were no national memorials to all soldiers and veterans of a single war. Memorials and monuments were built and administered at the state and local level.

After the unprecedented destruction and loss of life that came with World War I, municipalities across the United States began dedicating memorials to their local war dead. Barren County, Kentucky, was no different. Through the local American Legion post, the people of the county placed the tribute to their fallen loved ones inside of nearby Mammoth Cave.

Mammoth Cave started its life as a saltpeter mine, but soon it was discovered to be the world’s largest cave system. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a biosphere reserve. Even back then, people knew the significance of the caves around the world, so the residents of the county thought it would be a fitting tribute to put their memorial inside the entrance to the Rotunda Room, 700 feet inside the cave’s entrance.

Visitors from around the world would see the names of people from the area who gave their lives in World War I.

“No more appropriate spot could be chosen for such a national monument than this gigantic hole which winds for miles and miles under the hills and valleys of God’s Garden Spot Kentucky,” wrote the Richmond Daily Register on June 10, 1922.

When the National Park Service took over administering the caves in 1941, it had some difficult manpower decisions to make. They could not accommodate guided tours for every visitor, so they made some entrances self-guided. One of these was the entrance that led to the Rotunda Room -- and the WWI Memorial.

Like all great things left unattended, it began to fall into disrepair, the victim of time, decay and vandalism. With the centennial anniversary of the war’s end in sight, the National Park Service began to restore not just the World War I memorial, but an American War Mothers monument that was also in the same cave.

With the restoration of the monument itself, park administrators refurbished the papers containing the names of those killed in the war that were enshrined inside the monument. They then returned both structures to their original spots.

Veterans, active duty military personnel, and National Park Service rangers gather during a rededication ceremony inside Mammoth Cave, August 2017. (National Park Service)

The room and its sacred memorials were restored in time for a centennial commemoration of the United States’ entry into World War I.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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Military History World War I