Deferred but Lasting Gratitude
Dedication of Long-Awaited Memorial Fills Reunited WWII Veterans With Pride
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page A01
The sun shone on a generation yesterday, as the largest gathering of World War II veterans since 1945 assembled on the Mall to see their long-awaited memorial assume its place in the center of Washington's defining landmarks.
About 117,000 people with tickets, and tens of thousands of others, witnessed the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, a 7.4-acre tribute in granite and bronze that has been 17 years in the making.
"It is a fitting tribute, open and expansive like America itself, grand and enduring like the achievements we honor," President Bush told the crowd. "When it mattered most, an entire generation of Americans showed the finest qualities of our nation and of humanity. . . . We will raise the American flag over a monument that will stand as long as America itself."
The two primary concerns of the ceremony's organizers -- security breaches and serious medical problems among the mostly elderly crowd -- never materialized. Gentle breezes and temperatures in the low 70s helped ease the day's strain on the veterans and their spouses, who spent hours in open-air viewing areas. Emergency medical tents were lightly used, with doctors and nurses occasionally washing a cut from a fall or bandaging a turned ankle.
More than 1,000 police personnel from at least 35 law enforcement agencies were on duty, but they reported no serious incidents.
"It's been about perfect," said Henry Royce, 85, an Army veteran from Stowe, Vt. "Everybody's been so good to us. It seems like they really care."
The event had its share of sadness, including a moment of silence for the more than 400,000 U.S. service members killed in the war. But the day proved more celebratory than somber. As the crowd waited for the dedication program to begin, big bands played standards from the 1940s, and impromptu dancing could be spotted within the rows of men and women in their seventies and eighties.
Guy Kemp, 85, a former Navy Seabee who served in the Pacific, found himself jitterbugging to "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" with a woman he didn't know.
"This really gets me way down deep, talking to all these people and seeing all of this," said Kemp, who confessed that his son had to talk him into making the trip from his home in Winter Haven, Fla. "It's the best thing I've done in my life."
The ceremony and the memorial were conceived as a comprehensive tribute to a rapidly dwindling group. World War II veterans are dying at a rate of about 1,100 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The generation from that conflict -- the youngest of whom are now in their mid- to late seventies -- has witnessed a renaissance of appreciation for their wartime achievements.
Two figures who helped spark that renaissance -- Tom Brokaw, the newscaster and author of books chronicling "The Greatest Generation," and actor Tom Hanks, star of "Saving Private Ryan" -- were among those who took the stage during the 90-minute ceremony. Other speakers included former senator Robert J. Dole, who led the $175 million memorial's private fundraising drive, and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who first proposed the memorial in Congress in 1987 after an Ohio veteran, Roger Durbin, raised the issue with her a year earlier. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush were in the audience.
Although offspring of familiar names from the war era -- Roosevelt, Churchill, Eisenhower -- could be found in the crowd, the focus of the attention throughout the day remained squarely on the veterans, who had served with little fanfare. They were also the ones who responded to plans for the dedication with an enthusiasm that caught organizers by surprise.
Before it began distributing tickets to the event this year, the American Battle Monuments Commission had estimated that one-third of those occupying the 117,000 ticketed seats would be members of the World War II generation and the rest would be younger people. Instead, World War II veterans and their spouses accounted for about 60 percent of those in the ticketed seats yesterday, according to commission spokeswoman Betsy Glick.
"I didn't figure I'd ever see this big of a crowd at one time again, so that's why I wanted to be here," said Hilton Olde, 83, a Navy veteran from Wapello, Iowa, who was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. "It's quite spectacular."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Veterans and tourists crowded the National Mall Saturday for the dedication of the new World War II Memorial. The Reflecting Pool can be seen in the foreground, then the World War II Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the U.S. Capitol in the background.
(U.S. Park Police, Charles Pereira - AP)