A year ago this weekend, we witnessed something quite extraordinary by almost anyone’s measure. It was the largest and likely final reunion of the World War II generation: the dedication of the World War II Memorial on the Mall in our nation’s capital.
The dedication of the memorial on May 29, 2004, was a bittersweet moment for men and women in their late 70s, 80s and 90s, who traveled thousands of miles to remember they were part of something that changed the face of the world for the better. Some donned — or squeezed into — their old uniforms, their Legion, Purple Heart and VFW hats. Others carried banners of their units or danced in the aisle with their high-school sweetheart to the sounds of the Andrews Sisters.
The memorial they celebrated is just 1 year old, but it is not too soon to gauge its importance to our nation or to visitors from around the world. The National Park Service estimated that in the eight months of 2004 it was open, 5.5 million people visited — probably more than any other national memorial visited this past year. Many of those paying their respects were veterans and their families; many others were schoolchildren learning something about the conflict for the first time. Still uncounted others were citizens from countries touched by that conflict some 60 years ago.
Though I am proud the memorial was finished so our country could appreciate it fully with the presence of so many veterans, memorials are built for future generations. A schoolchild learning about World War II for the first time will not learn everything from the memorial, for it is not a museum. But he or she will get a sense of the war’s enormity.
The sculptured panels leading into the memorial depict the transformation of America caused by the country’s total immersion in the war — the mobilization of our agricultural, industrial, military and human resources that made us the arsenal of democracy and breadbasket to the world. The pillars, pavilions and inscriptions tell of the war’s depth and breath. The field of 4,000 gold stars, the story of our sacrifice, honors more than 400,000 Americans who lost their lives.
Leading up to the dedication last year, I received calls from family members of WWII veterans who were hanging on just to see that day. Many were too sick or feeble to make the long trip to Washington. One man with whom I spoke just two days prior to the ceremony died the next day. He did not get to watch the dedication on TV but was with us in spirit as were the nearly 12 million WWII vets who had passed on earlier.
Among the hundreds of thousands who did come, tears flew freely as they remembered comrades lost during the war or since — comrades who stormed the beaches of Normandy and flew the skies over Germany and Japan; who fought in the hills of Italy or on islands in the Pacific; who sailed merchant ships across the Atlantic or fought the naval battles of the Far East.
More than 93,000 of those killed in the war lie buried beside their brothers-in-arms in 14 overseas American cemeteries maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the same federal agency that built the World War II Memorial.
During Memorial Day ceremonies at ABMC cemeteries around the world, American and foreign citizens will gather to honor the sacrifice of U.S. servicemen and -women from all wars, just as we will do here at home at cemeteries, memorials and town squares throughout the nation. Flags on government buildings, naval vessels, and neighborhood homes will fly at half-staff. And Americans worldwide will pause at 3 p.m. to observe a National Moment of Remembrance for those who have served and fallen for our freedom.
And on this Memorial Day we will also remember a sunny afternoon one year ago, one extraordinary day in America. That day everyone seemed to sing from the same hymnal, even if just for a few hours, thinking not of war, but of the enormity of a task willingly accomplished by ordinary people who understood there come times in our lives when we may be called to sacrifice for a cause greater than ourselves.
Bob Dole, former Senate Majority Leader and Kansas Republican, is author of “One Soldier’s Story,” recently published by HarperCollins. He is special counsel at the law firm of Alston & Bird LLP and was chairman of the WWII Memorial fund-raising campaign.