The Pentagon Building’s 9/11 Memorials

FROM A LECTURE SERIES BY PROFESSOR RICHARD KURIN

The Pentagon is one of the most iconic buildings in the Washington, D.C. area. On September 11, 2001, this grand military complex—the headquarters of the Department of Defense—was the site of a devastating terrorist attack. How did the Pentagon memorialize this traumatic national event?

September 11 memorial - "the Pentagon Group Burial Marker" - at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington DC

When visiting the Air Force Memorial on its hill overlooking Arlington Cemetery, take a moment to look out to the east, at the Pentagon, about a quarter mile away. You may notice a section in the center of the wall where the stone is lighter. This is the spot where American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. on September 11, 2001.

The 184 victims of that attack are honored in two locations nearby. One is a group burial site in Arlington Cemetery; it contains the remains of 25 identified and 5 unidentified victims. The other is the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.

Impromptu memorials to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack sprang up within days, both at the plane crash site at the World Trade Center in New York City and at the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The impromptu memorial for victims at the Pentagon was at the Navy Annex, a few streets away. Plans for permanent memorials quickly followed.

“Memorial Unit” Benches Symbolize All Lives Lost

Pentagon memorial benches for victims of 9/11

The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial is located just outside the Pentagon. In a stark, two-acre field of granite benches—184 in all, one for each of the victims—the “Memorial Unit” is aligned along the flight path of Flight 77, arranged along a timeline according to the victims’ ages and whether they were onboard Flight 77 or were in the Pentagon building. The bench nearest the entrance is dedicated to Dana Falkenberg, who was just three years old. The furthest bench from the entrance is dedicated to retired U.S. Navy Captain John D. Yamnicky, Sr., who was 71. Each bench has an illuminated reflecting pool of water underneath it, which lights the overall memorial at night.

The “Memorial Unit” of benches is surrounded by a memorial wall, where once again the victims’ names are engraved. The names here are in alphabetical order, listed beside their birth year. It serves as both a memorial in itself and also as a guide to where each bench is located along the timeline. Needless to say, no concerts or celebrations are held at this site, but a memorial service is held here every year on September 11.

The 9/11 memorial inside of the Pentagon, called the America’s Heroes Memorial, is located in the Pentagon’s outermost ring, known as the E Ring, at the location of the plane’s point of impact. The memorial room contains a book of photographs, biographies of the victims, and a small chapel.

The Pentagon memorials and the other 9/11 memorials resonate very closely with the heart of our nation, and especially with the families and friends of those who were lost.

Touring the Pentagon

To visit the 9/11 memorial inside the Pentagon’s outermost ring, you’ll need to tour the Pentagon itself. As you might imagine, because it is the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, tours of the Pentagon are highly restricted.

Reservations must be made between three months and two weeks of your planned tour date. Every entrant must pass a security screening, and visitors over the age of 18 must present a current, valid photo ID to enter. You need to arrive about an hour before your scheduled tour to ensure you have enough time to pass through security. And please note, there is no public parking at the Pentagon; the closest parking is indeed several blocks away. Public transportation is much more convenient. You can take Metrorail to the Pentagon or Pentagon City stops on the Blue and Yellow lines and walk from there. Metro buses also have stops that get you to the Pentagon.

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The 60-minute Pentagon tour covers about one and a half miles of the Pentagon’s corridors. That’s just a fraction of the 3,705,793 square feet of space contained within the Pentagon’s walls. It houses about 23,000 government employees and civilian contractors and is one of the largest office buildings in the world. Despite its size, due to the way the corridors intersect, it is said that it is possible to walk between any two points in the building in less than seven minutes.

As for what you will see on your tour, it varies by tour guide. Security concerns, ongoing construction, or the guide’s experience and areas of interest might all affect your route. Two spots you are likely to visit on any tour, however, include the America’s Heroes Memorial and the Hall of Heroes, dedicated to the nearly 3,500 recipients of the U.S. Medal of Honor.

One site you may or may not visit is the Pentagon’s central courtyard. This open green space contains benches where employees often spend their breaks and lunch hours, enjoying the sunshine. But the really interesting part of the courtyard is the small building at its very center. Although the building is fairly small, it was large enough to be picked up by the Cold War-era Soviet satellites surveilling the Pentagon. Their intelligence analysts saw groups of military personnel entering and exiting the small building at about the same time each day and they concluded that this was the entrance to an ultra-secure facility, maybe even an underground bunker.

Well, no. The building is a hot dog stand. The personnel the Soviets saw were just grabbing a quick bite for lunch.

Levity aside, the Pentagon is the beating heart of America’s military. In times of war and in times of peace, the decisions made and the actions taken inside these very walls can affect every person of this planet. But the Pentagon is also simply another part of everyday life in Washington, D.C., somewhere that our friends and neighbors work, somewhere we may drive past every day without thinking about the extraordinary importance of the work that goes on inside.

This article is from the series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C., taught by Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.