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.
"Imagine, a 16- or 17-year-old kid gets to sit in the turret with a machine gun," he said. "That's why they take young men to fight the war. It's exciting. There's nothing fearful about it.
"Then the fear comes later as you mature a little bit."
He's sure he killed some Japanese aboard ships, but he never could see from up in the plane. Facing death and dealing death, he thinks, made him a better father. He learned tolerance in the war, perspective about what really matters in life, both of which gave him patience with his eight children.
"Live for today," Budden said. "You never worry about tomorrow. That's what I'm doing now."
The philosophy has helped in recent years when he battled prostate cancer, bladder cancer, the loss of a kidney.
Surviving members of the generation are facing their second near-death experience. First came combat, then old age. And yet, they say they can face death with equanimity because of their life experience. The memorial is a comfort, too.
"I don't even think about death much," Budden said. "It's going to come when it's going to come. But it's going to have to come get me, because I'm not going to volunteer."
"You know what he said when I asked if he was up to coming here?" said Barbara Budden. " 'If I drop dead in the middle of the memorial, I'll die happy.' "
Just then, with the dedication stage spread in front and the Washington Monument behind, Franklin W. Hooper butted into the conversation from one row back.
"Let's talk about the guys who won the war: the Army," he teased.
"You couldn't have won the war unless we got you there," Navy man Budden answered.
Hooper, from Aberdeen, N.J., was a machine gunner with combat engineers who built roads and bridges on islands in the Pacific. He recalled the time a mortar shell landed near where he was shaving one morning -- a dud. And when he saw a Japanese soldier with a bayonet charging him -- and woke up in the hospital, not remembering anything.
After experiences like that, "you learn not to fuss over little things," Hooper said. "Nothing can bother us after what we've been through."
Hooper has nothing against the generations that followed -- he has three children, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren -- but he does worry about the toughness of the nation's spirit.
"The big difference between today's world and World War II time is the entire nation was at war economically. There were victory gardens, rationing. People today think they can buy an American flag, put it on an SUV and say, 'We're for the war.'
"People today don't understand suffering. Life has become softer and really over-civilized."
He stops and considers how this sounds. He smiles, refers to himself in the third person: "He says, as he drives an Acura TL, living the good life in New Jersey."
Maybe he's earned it. His generation paved the way for the boom times. And now the nation has the luxury of fighting wars on the margins of most people's lives.
Jean Klein, 78, says she will take personal blame for these soft, succeeding generations.
But first she gets up and dances some old-fashioned jazz dance steps with veteran Byron Logan. They don't know each other, but on the lawn members of the generation greet one another like members of an extended family. Sons and daughters walk up to strangers who were in their fathers' regiments and embrace. Combat buddies, 60 years older now, shed tears over friends they last saw broken and bloody on battlefields they will never forget.
Klein, from north of Denver, at 17 married Charles Franklin Kesey, who became a staff sergeant in the Army Air Forces, a nose gunner in B-24 bombers who was shot down and killed over Romania on June 11, 1944. A month later, their daughter, Charlene, was born.
Charlene Busby, now 60, was at the dedication, too, as was her son, Michael Pinkerton, 37. Altogether, the long-dead nose gunner has two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Nearly 300 World War II "orphans" attended the dedication, the children of servicemen killed in action. Their presence was at once a sign of how life can go on, but also how, for many other family trees, it ended there. "I gotta say thank you to my grandpa," said Pinkerton. "I wouldn't like speaking German. I like owning a firearm and all my rights. It wasn't a politician who gave me a right to free speech, it was a veteran."
Klein, who later married another high school chum -- Allen Klein, 79, Navy, also at the dedication -- says if the later generations are a little spoiled, it's the greatest generation's fault.
Her generation absorbed some hard lessons: "You appreciated life. Your learned how fragile it was. You grew up in a hurry. Everybody was patriotic."
The experiences made them want more for the next generations. "Because we had nothing, we wanted to give them everything. . . . We've ruined you. I'm a great grandmother and I ruined you.
"If I could I'd like to sit them all down and talk to them: 'Praise your country. Don't cuss. Don't protest. Hug a stranger.' "
With that, she hugged and danced with more strangers.
Amid the happy reunions, there were tears over lessons learned, losses never to be redeemed.
During patriotic songs, the veterans stood saluting with quivering hands, and tears on their cheeks. The section with the orphans waved hundreds of gold stars -- the 60-year-old symbol of a family member killed in the war. Others waved thousands of American flags.
Klein cried for her first husband, who never saw his baby.
Dan Iannelli, from Swarthmore, Pa., cried remembering the blood and body parts he saw inside tanks hit by German shells at the Battle of the Bulge. His job was to haul away bombed-out tanks and bring in new ones.
Iannelli's father fought in World War I. His son fought in Vietnam. An unspoken knowledge and understanding -- lessons of fear, deprivation, sacrifice -- passed from one generation of warrior to the next.
"My dad was gassed in World War I," he said. "Doctors had to cut off the end of his tongue because it was starting to decay. When I came home from World War II, I said, 'Dad, now I understand.' My son served in the Mekong Delta on one of the river boats. When he came home, he said to me, 'Dad, now I understand.' "
Iannelli caught sight of some young Prince William County sheriff's deputies providing security: another generation in uniform.
"Thank you for keeping us safe," said the veteran.
"We say thank you to you," said one of the deputies.
"We had a job to do and we did the job," said Iannelli. "When I look at you guys, I say it was well worth it."
Top, William Wike, 76, of Browns Mills, N.J., is a former Army staff sergeant who came alone to the dedication by bus.At left, Karen Amendo of Washington embraces her father, Frank, a former Army second lieutenant in the Pacific, who lives in Asheville, N.C. At right, Kenneth Budden, 77, of Derry, N.H., was a turret gunner on torpedo planes flying from the USS Langley. He signed up for the war at 16.