For Veterans, an Emotional Landmark
Memorial officials chose to leave standing portions of the chain-link fence around the memorial, hoping it might discourage people from walking on sections of newly applied sod. An information center was opened on the memorial's south side, where Park Service rangers distributed copies of a brochure explaining some highlights of the site.
One of the first to show up at the memorial yesterday morning was architect Freidrich St. Florian, the man who designed it. Shortly after the first few hundred visitors streamed into the main plaza at 9:30 a.m., he stood by the waterfalls near the wall of 4,000 gold stars -- each signifying 100 American war deaths -- and watched as people milled around him.
Some of the schoolchildren threw pennies into the fountains. A worker put a finishing touch on the base of the Pacific arch, spreading a grainy paste into a crack in the stone. Tourists debated which angles would produce the best snapshots. With 56 pillars representing the wartime U.S. states, territories and the District, many of the tourists elected to take photos of the pillar for the place they call home. Sherry Konjura and Bernice Diyanni, tour guides from Pennsylvania planning to lead groups to the site in the afternoon, walked through the grounds and studied the Park Service's brochures like students cramming for a test.
"It's extremely moving to be here and all of a sudden see all of these people coming in," St. Florian said. "I have always felt the war was a people's war and the memorial should be for the people. The idea of this plaza always was meant to be a civic place, where people could come and practice democracy, have a dialogue, have discussions and voice opinions. They don't even necessarily know what they're doing is practicing democracy, but that's the greatest compliment."
Many of the veterans who showed up yesterday said the same thing: They're the lucky ones, the ones who lived long enough to see the finished product. They knew the reason officials decided to open the memorial yesterday instead of waiting for the dedication ceremony May 29. They knew the grim statistics.
"We're dying at 1,100 a day," Pettavino said, repeating a number that has been publicized by officials with the American Battle Monuments Commission, the memorial's sponsor, when explaining why they wanted to open it this week.
The final decision to open yesterday was made only the afternoon before. Because of the uncertainty, many of yesterday's visits were accidental. The tourists and veterans from out of town just happened to be in the area, had heard that the memorial might open, and visited the Mall without knowing whether they would get in or not.
One busload of tourists -- including 14 World War II veterans from Decatur, Ill. -- timed the visit to Washington perfectly, showing up at the memorial shortly after it opened and getting a serendipitous tour of a landmark that many had waited years to see.
Fran Henderson, leader of a Junior ROTC group from Seabrook, N.H., showed her 38 students around the memorial in the morning, lingering over inscriptions that described the battles the group had studied in school.
"You read about it in books, you watch movies, but it's like you can reach out and touch it here," said Henderson, 51, who was moved to tears by simple inscriptions of words such as "Iwo Jima" and "Okinawa." "It's right there. Actually in front of you. It's there. I don't know how else to explain it."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Henry J. Wilayto of Concord, Mass., a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war, tours the memorial with his wife, Helen.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)