- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

The men and women of “the greatest generation” waited nearly 60 years to be memorialized by the country they saved and yesterday 150,000 veterans and their spouses and guests gathered on the Mall to receive a nation’s thanks as the National World War II Memorial was dedicated on a flawless spring day.

On hand were a slate of dignitaries, including two former presidents, members of Congress and the men and women who raised the money to pay for the memorial. President George W. Bush, the son of one of the men who went to war in 1941, praised the fearless heroism and supreme sacrifice of America’s greatest generation that “saved our country and thereby saved the liberty of mankind.”

The president said the 16 million Americans who served during the war “gave the best years of their lives to the greatest mission their country ever accepted.”

“At this place, at this memorial, we acknowledge a debt of long-standing to an entire generation of Americans — those who died, those who fought and worked and grieved and went on.”

Of the 405,000 soldiers who gave their lives to defeat Adolf Hitler and the sons of Nippon to liberate Europe and the islands of the Pacific, he said, “They saved our country and thereby saved the liberty of mankind.”

Thousands of old soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, some hobbling on canes, others in wheelchairs, and uniforms and hats of six decades ago filled the seats that ran in rows from the Reflecting Pool east past the Washington Monument toward the Capitol.

With only a quarter of the veterans who served in the war still alive — they’re dying at a rate 1,100 a day — Mr. Bush called the achievements and sacrifices those of men now immortal.

“When it mattered most, an entire generation of Americans showed the finest qualities of our nation and of humanity. On this day, in their honor, we will raise the American flag over a monument that will stand as long as America itself.”

The 7.5-acre memorial between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial features 56 granite pillars, each standing 17 feet high and representing the 48 states, territories of the time and the District of Columbia, and two arches more than twice that height with Atlantic and Pacific etched in tall letters symbolizing the two theaters of the war. A wall with 4,000 sculpted gold stars commemorates the more than 400,000 Americans killed — one star for each hundred men who gave their lives.

Along the ceremonial entrance from 17th Street NW are a series of 24 sculpted bronze panels depicting wartime scenes, both at home and overseas.

Veterans and family members lined up on the Mall at dawn for the day’s events, including big-band music, swing dancing to hits from the 1940s and a flyover of Air Force jets. Security was extremely tight, but most veterans seemed happy to be on the Mall for their day.

For Joe Nader, 87, of Yonkers, N.Y., an Army lieutenant colonel who served in the Pacific during the war, the day was typically bittersweet. In Washington with four war buddies, Mr. Nader was happy to see the memorial as he moves through the twilight of his life.

“We lived to see it. I’m willing to go to bed now and sleep forever, now that I’ve seen it. It’s like the statues in Vatican City, it’s so pretty.”

Most of the 117,000 ticketed seats were filled by noon, two hours before the ceremony began. World War II-era music kept the crowd entertained. Huge screens were set up at other sites across the Mall, and thousands more — too ill or frail to make the trip — watched on television from veterans’ halls and other places across the nation.

Some of the veterans, hunched and gray-haired, wept openly at times, and others, exemplifying the stoic nature of the men of “the greatest generation,” dabbed at their eyes or simply bowed their heads when the emotion of the day swept over them.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the Ohio Democrat who in 1987 proposed the original legislation to build the memorial, was the first to address the crowd.

Melissa Durbin — whose World War II veteran grandfather Roger Durbin asked Mrs. Kaptur the “Where’s our memorial?” at a barbecue in 1986 that inspired her to propose the memorial — helped Mrs. Kaptur greet the veterans and their families. Roger Durbin died in 2000.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, a World War II veteran who led the 11-year effort to build the memorial, called the day “our final reunion.”

“Yet as we gather in the twilight, it is brightened by the knowledge that we have kept faith with our comrades from a distant youth,” he said.

“It is only fitting that when this memorial was open to the public about a month ago, the very first visitors were schoolchildren. For them, our war is ancient history, and those who fought it are slightly ancient themselves. But in the end, they are the ones for whom we built this shrine and to whom we now hand the baton in the unending relay of human possibility.”

Before the ceremonies began, George H.W. Bush, a Navy pilot shot down over the South Pacific in 1944, told a service at the National Cathedral that the celebration of World War II veterans should remind all Americans about the honor and courage of those now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The scope of World War II may have been greater, but the anxiety and the pain is no greater,” said the 41st president of the United States. “To each of those who serve now, no less a debt of gratitude is owed.”

His son echoed that message in his week radio address. “Those who have fought the battles of the war on terror and served the cause of freedom can be proud of all they have achieved.

“And these veterans of battle will carry with them for all their days the memory of the ones who did not live to be called veterans. Our mission continues, and we will see it through to victory.”

Using similar language to describe the war against Hitler and that against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush said the invasion of Iraq was part of an effort to defend freedom.

U.S. enemies in Iraq “seek to force free nations to retreat into isolation and fear, yet we will persevere, and defeat this enemy, and hold this hard-won ground for the realm of liberty.”

As if taking aim at critics who charge the United States is losing the war in Iraq, Mr. Bush said: “In the history books, the Second World War can appear as a series of crises and conflicts … yet on the day the war began, and on many hard days that followed, the outcome was far from certain. There was a time, in the years before the war, when many earnest and educated people believed that democracy was finished.”

Americans realized “the enterprise would require the commitment and effort of our entire nation,” citizens banded together as never before.

In his remarks at the memorial, Mr. Bush paid tribute to his father as he thanked the men who served in World War II.

“These were the modest sons of a peaceful country, and millions of us are very proud to call them Dad,” he said.

Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, lauded the heroic work of soldiers throughout U.S. history and reminded everyone again that “I fought in Vietnam.” In remarks in his weekly radio address, he criticized what he called President Bush’s failure to create “alliances on a global scale,” as President Roosevelt did during World War II.

“We must rebuild alliances that have been shredded — because an America respected in the world will be an America stronger in the world — and safer here at home. It calls on us, as it has every president, from Franklin Roosevelt on, not to go it alone, but to build and lead a global alliance for freedom and against fear.”

Mr. Kerry later attended the dedication of the memorial.

Former President Bill Clinton sat on the stage with former President George H.W. Bush, and after the dedication the three presidents chatted, smiled and appeared to exchange a moment of humor. Each gave the other an amiable pat on the back. The 41st president gave Mr. Clinton an emphatic bump, as if emphasizing a point, and Mr. Clinton laughed heartily.

Actor Tom Hanks, who helped raise funds for the project and co-produced “Band of Brothers,” the HBO miniseries about the E “Easy” Company of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division that parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, also spoke. He saluted those who served in noncombat and civilian roles on the home front.

“Time demands that more than the fallen be remembered,” he said. “They asked themselves every day, ‘What can I do?’ and every day they provided their own answers.”

NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw, whose book titled “The Greatest Generation” was a best-seller, expressed a sentiment echoed by several veterans.

“It has taken too long to build this memorial to symbolize the gratitude of our nation,” he said. “Your lives and how you lived them… that is the enduring legacy.”

The veterans, like their guests, seemed overwhelmed by both the memorial and the emotion of the day. “I think it’s great,” said William Cay, 80, of Tulsa, Okla., a former flight engineer who stood in the shade smoking a cigarette while the president was onstage.

“I wanted to see all of this,” he said, glancing at the president and crowd. “At my age, I might not get another chance.”

Staff writersJon Ward and Sean Salai contributed to this story.

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