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Summer travel ideas: Visiting America's monuments to freedom

Scott McMurren
E.W. Merrill photo

Beyond the barbecues, fireworks and patriotism that accompany midsummer celebrations, Americans celebrate national independence every Fourth of July. The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is commemorated. Those who fought and died for the freedoms enumerated in that document are remembered. It's a great time to ask: Would I fight for freedom and liberty? Would I die for these ideals?

Many have. As Americans travel this weekend -- whether it's an Alaska "staycation," a trip to the Lower 48, or even somewhere else in the world -- make time to pay tribute at monuments and edifices to those who fought and died for the freedoms so often take for granted.

Here in Alaska, two sites commemorate battles of World War II: The National Historic Area in Dutch Harbor and Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park in Kodiak.

In Alaska

The Aleutian World War II National Historic Area is administered by the Unalaska village corporation, Ounalashka Corp. in affiliation with the National Park Service. Find the visitors center in the Unalaska airport's Aerology Building, which was built in the 1940s as a weather station. Many of the exhibits came directly from area residents or from World War II veterans. Check out the extensive underground network of fortresses at nearby Mount Ballyhoo. And while in Unalaska, be sure and visit the Museum of the Aleutians, which offers exhibits, collections, lectures and guided field trips memorializing the long, rich history of Aleutian Islands region civilization.

In Kodiak, volunteers constructed the Kodiak Military History Museum at Fort Abercrombie. Located inside a World War II-era bunker, the museum features an extensive collection of gear and fascinating memorabilia, including vehicles, telecommunications gear, uniforms, newspapers, flags and more. The museum itself is situated at a high point overlooking open water, adjacent to a huge gun battery used to defend the island.

Interested in pre-American Alaska? Visit the Sitka National Historical Park. This site marks a weeklong battle in 1804 between Russian traders and the Alaska Tlingit, more than a half-century before the Alaska territory was purchased by the U.S. from Russia. Two miles of trails lead visitors through lush Southeast rainforest to a clearing near the site of the battle. Tlingit and Haida totem poles line the trail. Visitors can also learn more about the learn more about the Russian colonial history of North America at the Russian Bishop's House, constructed in 1843.

In Hawaii

It was more than 25 years after my first visit to Hawaii before I took my family to Pearl Harbor Historic Sites in Honolulu, part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. The highlight of a visit to Pearl Harbor must include a trip to the USS Arizona Memorial. Make reservations in advance. The death toll stood at 1,177 after the attack. The memorial, reached by taking a short cruise from the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, spans the mid-portion of the sunken battleship. At the time of our visit, our kids were young and spirited. But the overwhelming atmosphere of sacred reverence was pervasive. Everyone was silent as we quietly explored what is best described as "a sunken tomb."

Alaska Airlines offers a late-summer special for travel between Honolulu and Anchorage. Take advantage of a $455 roundtrip, nonstop fare for travel between Aug.8-21, 2012, and visit the national monument.

On mainland

I recommend a visit to the National Mall in Washington, DC. The National Park Service refers to it as "The Nation's Front Yard" and it's a fitting description. Even though I lived in the Washington area for three years and have visited since, I still have not seen all of the exhibits. It just takes time to soak it all in!

Many Anchorage residents and Alaska tourists visited the Delaney Park Strip last week to see the Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The project, administered by Vietnam veterans, offers a prelude to visiting the original memorial on the National Mall.

Other National Mall memorials to visit include the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the World War II Memorial.

You can spend days and days exploring the Mall and still not see it all. Alaskans may find interesting the newest Smithsonian addition, The National Museum of the American Indian, which pays tribute to America's First Peoples. And then there are the monuments to U.S. founding fathers, including Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Europe

Further abroad, I look forward to visiting the beaches of Normandy, France. My grandfather worked with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower leading up to D-Day, June 6, 1944, when Allied Forces stormed French beaches. More than 9,000 Americans are buried in Normandy.

The American Battle Monuments Commission opened a visitor center at the Normandy American Cemetery in France, 63 years after D-Day, with a specific mission: to "complement and enhance the experience of visiting the cemetery."

By relating the global significance and meaning of Operation Overlord, the center pays tribute to the values and sacrifices of the World War II generation. After experiencing the cemetery and the center, visitors will have a greater appreciation of those participating in the Normandy invasion, the achievement of America and her Allies in conducting the greatest amphibious invasion in history and the importance of honoring our war dead.

The quickest, least-expensive tickets to Europe are on Condor. Fly nonstop through Oct. 9, 2012 for as little as $858 roundtrip between Anchorage and Frankfurt, Germany. 

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com or follow him on Twitter for breaking travel news.