A dwindling army of graying veterans with chests full of medals and fresh-faced teenagers in marching bands trooped through the heart of Washington yesterday in the city's first Memorial Day parade in more than 60 years.
Wrapping up four days of emotional and long-overdue tributes to the men and women who served in World War II, the three-hour parade crossed the Mall near the U.S. Capitol and headed west on Independence Avenue. A forbidding sky and spritzes of rain left the crowds sparse but game, with some places along the 12-block route lined two and three rows deep.
As the patter of drums and the skirl of bagpipes echoed among the monuments and museums, children waved small U.S. flags, old men stood in salute and many spectators converted newspapers into umbrellas. Numerous bands snapped to their routines in front of TV cameras, with the Capitol as a backdrop, or began playing in front of the reviewing stand near the soon-to-open National Museum of the American Indian at Fourth Street.
"Nobody wants war," said Evie Caldwell, 30, of Omaha, whose thoughts turned between soldiers called up in past wars and those serving in Iraq. "You still need to support them, no matter what."
Across the Potomac River, President Bush paid tribute to the nation's fallen soldiers in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
After receiving a jubilant, flag-waving ovation, Bush extolled the sacrifices made by 400,000 Americans of his father's generation and alluded to the sacrifices by U.S. forces in Iraq today.
"Since the hour this nation was attacked, we have seen the character of the men and women who wear our country's uniform," Bush said. "Because of their fierce courage, America is safer, two terror regimes are gone forever and more than 50 million souls now live in freedom."
In the afternoon, hundreds gathered for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which had been visited earlier by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). The names of 10 veterans who died from wounds suffered during that war were added to the black granite wall, bringing the total number of honored dead to 58,245.
During the ceremony, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge paid tribute to Army Capt. Humbert Roque "Rocky" Versace, of Alexandria, who was killed while in captivity in North Vietnam in 1965. In 2002, Versace became the first Army prisoner of war to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Women who served in World War II also were honored in a special ceremony. At the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, they shared stories about boot camp, island-hopping in the Pacific and training as aviators. They also paid respect to those who have recently died in service to the country.
Mary Bosveld, whose daughter Rachel, 19, was killed during a mortar attack in Iraq last fall, said her daughter wanted people to know why she was there.
"She used to tell me she served so that people at home could appreciate freedom," Bosveld said. "She used to say, 'Will you tell my story?' Little did I know I would be telling this story."
Yesterday's events ended a four-day tribute to the nation's military, featuring Saturday's dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall. The commemorations altered in tone with succeeding generations of veterans: from a nostalgic look back on a world war often cast as an unambiguously moral crusade, to the more restive legacy of the conflict in Vietnam; from the strains of Glenn Miller and big band swing to the pounding of Harleys and rock-and-roll.
For many of the World War II veterans, the tributes carried a poignant note of finality.
"I'm going to be 80 in August," said Horace Nearhood, a former private from Toledo, who watched yesterday's parade. "It's getting close to the end." At his side was Dorothy Kjera of Maxbass, N.D., widow of the soldier who rescued Nearhood after he was hit by a bullet.
Yesterday's events proceeded smoothly, with security low-key but obvious. About 70 D.C. police officers, backed by scores of federal officers, lined the parade route every 100 paces or so.
As on Saturday and Sunday, there were no arrests and no serious medical emergencies, according to Capt. Alton M. Bigelow of the D.C. police's special operations division. Brian B. Hubbard, director of operations for the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, put the number of parade watchers at between 10,000 and 15,000.
At times along the route, however, it seemed as if the parade participants outnumbered the crowd, which was likely thinned because of the threat of rain -- and the 8 a.m. start time.
"Try to keep it nice and tight! Move it! Gotta move it!" yelled Ned Elliot, a parade organizer trying to smooth the procession's flow.
The parade began with a red 1941 Packard convertible chugging along Third Street and carrying Mayor Anthony A. Williams and World War II veteran Effie W. Johnson.
Williams, who wore a red, white and blue striped shirt and navy baseball cap reading "America Celebrates the Greatest Generation," called the Memorial Day weekend commemoration the most successful event in years.
"This is an even bigger event than the Millennium [2000 New Year's celebration] was for the city," he said.
William A. Hanbury, president of the Washington, DC Convention and Tourism Corp., said that the weekend's events drew unusually large crowds from outside the region. Hotels across the city reported 100 percent occupancy rates, and everyone in the hospitality trades, from florists to cabdrivers, seemed to be making money.
"All indications are it was a blockbuster weekend, economically," he said.
More than 40 states were represented in yesterday's parade by marching bands, fife and drum units or bagpipers, and many of the spectators came from America's small towns, including Madisonville, Ky., Topton, Pa., and Taft, Calif. Stevensville, Mich., for example, sent a sizable bunch to root for Lakeshore High School's gargantuan 250-member band, which arrived in 10 buses.
Lakeshore's principal, Bill Scaletta, ran out to greet honorary grand marshal Nancy Sinatra, of "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " fame, in her chauffeured vehicle as his boss, superintendent Don Frank, snapped pictures.
"I wanted to see if she had boots on," Scaletta said. "She didn't have boots on."
Waiting in front of the Smithsonian Institution for his turn to join the parade, retired Lt. Col. Samuel Lombardo, 84, of Carlisle, Pa., thought back to the winter of 1944 in a snow-covered field in Germany, when he feared that each step he took might be his last. During the Battle of the Bulge, Lombardo said, he led a company of soldiers in the 99th Infantry Division through a minefield.
"Each step was a moment of truth," he said.
A few days later, when rain cleared the field of snow, he realized how lucky he had been. "I really got almost an electrified feeling on me -- like it was divine guidance," he said.
Riding in the parade car behind him was James Strawder, 83, of Northeast Washington. Strawder was one of 2,000 black soldiers who had volunteered for combat duty to replace white soldiers killed in the Battle of the Bulge.
Nearby stood Lafe Edmunds, 79, a retired biology professor from Manassas who also served in the 99th Division. Yesterday, he wore running shoes and was glad to be wearing any shoes at all.
A machine gunner with Company M of the 339th Infantry Regiment, Edmunds had been evacuated during the Battle of the Bulge with a case of frostbite that had turned his feet black. Others similarly frostbitten, or suffering with what the G.I.s called trench foot, sometimes had to undergo amputation.
His feet, he said, were strong enough to carry him to the end of the parade route. It was his back, he said, that worried him. Then, surveying the handful of veterans from his division waiting to march, he added: "We were a division of over 15,000 men -- and now we're down to this."
Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Leef Smith contributed to this report.