NATIONAL WORLD WAR II MEMORIAL DEDICATION
On the Mall, the Greatest Generation Has Its Last Big Family Reunion
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page D01
The warriors were a little stooped now, and slower of foot, as yesterday they occupied the vast lawn west of the Washington Monument where war protesters from other generations have claimed the ground. They wore little caps with pins and insignias that mystify people much younger. Almost invariably by their sides were their high school sweethearts, whom they married right before shipping out to the Solomon Islands or Normandy, or as soon as they got back. Trailing behind were the succeeding generations, less great until history says different, the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
"If we make it to July 6, it will be our 60th wedding anniversary," said Pete Kinser, sitting beside Phyllis, from Rogersville, Mo. He wore a purple cap and a purple windbreaker, emblematic of the Purple Heart association to which he belongs.
He was a machine gunner on one of a pair of bombers that took off from Okinawa and were attacked by 12 Japanese fighter planes on May 17, 1945. A 20mm cannon shell smashed into his turret, and shrapnel peppered his body, but somehow they fought off the fighters and limped home. He had 10 bullets left from his supply of 1,000.
"It was unheard of for two bombers to outfight 12 fighters," Kinser said.
Was he scared?
"There's nothing else you can do but do your best," said the warrior. "And keep firing until your ammunition runs out."
That's the famous laconic code of the greatest generation, grace under pressure, don't make a big fuss over amazing accomplishments. At the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, others were making a big fuss over them. There were brass bands, singers, celebrities. Speechmakers, whose faces beamed from Jumbotrons deployed the length of the Mall, reached to find the right words.
"I salute each and every one of you," said Tom Brokaw.
"These were average men and women who lived in extraordinary times," said former president George H.W. Bush, a WWII veteran himself.
"When it mattered most, an entire generation of Americans showed the finest qualities of our nation and of humanity," said the current President Bush.
And yet the words seemed pale and insufficient in the presence of the members of the generation themselves. They walked or were wheeled across the grass, a hallowed minority in whose company you felt somehow diminished, for reasons you did not care to examine just then.
Theirs was an era when national sacrifice was not optional. The good times began in 1946 and they have never really stopped. Today with the nation at war, many are sacrificing, but it is also possible for most Americans to live their lives virtually untouched. Politicians even say many are sacrificing too much -- their taxes are too high. Back then, with war rationing and privation at home, hard on the heels of the Great Depression, and with people volunteering for duty if they weren't drafted, sacrifice was a way of life.
Yesterday, on the grass, was perhaps the last great gathering of a vanishing America. You wanted to hear the great generation speak. You had questions -- about fear, about death, about what combat or homefront sacrifice teaches about life. About whether succeeding generations can measure up.
Kenneth Budden, from Derry, N.H., was leaning on a cane beside his wife, Barbara. He was a turret gunner on torpedo planes flying from the USS Langley aircraft carrier in the Pacific. "I was 16 years old, my father signed me in" younger than the service age of 17, Budden said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Jean Klein, 78, a war widow who lives north of Denver, dances with Byron Logan, 77, from Hickory, N.C. Logan, who served in the World War II Navy on the USS Murrelet, is a World War I enthusiast who is wearing an authentic uniform from that war. Many strangers of the WWII generation greeted one another like family.
(Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)