John Nichols stood at the National World War II Memorial yesterday morning, cards reading "Okinawa" taped to the front of his shirt and the back of his gray suit jacket, hoping to meet someone he served with in Japan more than 60 years ago.
"I haven't found anyone yet," Nichols, 82, a retired District schoolteacher who was a sergeant in a quartermaster supply unit, said as he scanned the crowds that spent part of Veterans Day visiting the memorial.
But Nichols did meet James Crawford, 91, who spent much of his stint as an Army sergeant in the Philippines. Crawford traveled by bus from Hooks, Tex., to get his first view of the memorial, in part for himself but also for Wyatt, Wesley and David -- his three younger brothers, each of them a veteran who died after serving in the military.
"It shows how Americans appreciate us," Crawford said, gazing at the reflecting pool, in front of which stood a wreath and a ribbon that read: "From a Grateful Nation."
Nichols smiled as he listened to his newfound friend. "This has made my day," he said, putting a hand on Crawford's shoulder. "It makes me want to cry."
On a bright, warm day, veterans groups hosted wreath-laying ceremonies across the region -- including at the National World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery, where President Bush spoke before the Tomb of the Unknowns, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- that drew thousands of spectators.
The ceremony at the National World War II Memorial, sponsored by an organization affiliated with the Department of Defense, was the first to celebrate Veterans Day at the site, which opened in May.
On an average day, as many as 10,000 people visit the memorial, making it among the most popular sites on the Mall, said Bill Line, a National Park Service spokesman. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial draws about the same number of visitors, an estimate derived by park rangers using clickers to keep track.
"There has been higher than sky-high interest in the World War II Memorial," Line said. "That generation is rapidly dying off, and to the extent that that they are able to come, they're coming."
But the crowd at the morning ceremony at the World War II Memorial was relatively small, a fact that did not go unnoticed by veterans, some of whom traveled long distances.
"It makes me feel a little bit sorry," said William Tucker, 81, of Cape Cod, Mass., who served as an Army sergeant and is a member of the 82nd Airborne Division Association, an organization that sponsored its own Veterans Day ceremony at the memorial. "They ought to be here. This is the place to be."
Leaning on a cane, Tucker said he found himself thinking about Jack Leonard and Bill Laws, two men with whom he served and who died in France when artillery fire exploded in a trench in which they were hiding.
Tucker said he was supposed to have been in the hole with the men, but there was not enough space for him. He was a few yards away when they were killed. "The older I get, the more I think about those guys," Tucker said. "God Almighty, or whoever directs the universe, kept me alive."
A few feet away, Thomas Abbott, 84, who served as an Army sergeant, said his memories have grown more poignant with each passing year. As he stood at the memorial for the first time, he said he was overcome with thoughts of how close he had come to being killed.
"I used to be hard as a rock. I'm like a marshmallow now," he said, tearing up. "You see your friends die, you see their heads blown off, you see their legs blown off. You never get over it."
A number of the World War II veterans planned to attend the ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which for 20 years has been the site of the main Veterans Day event on the mall.
By the start of the ceremony before the black granite panels filled with the names of dead troops, thousands of people had gathered to watch a presentation by the Armed Forces Color Guard and hear remarks by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Vietnam veteran.
Leaning against a tree, an unlit cigar between his fingers, Hank Llewellyn, 58, said he drove down from Pottstown, Pa., to see old friends from his days as an Army machine gunner. As he has grown older, he said, he has become more appreciative of the simple fact that he survived.
"We try not to dwell on the pain," he said. "We try to talk about the funny times. Not that it was a comedy, but there was a lot that was funny. The adhesive of our relationships becomes stronger as the years pass."
Sarah Rogers, 30, of Fredericksburg, stood with her father, James Shipley, 73, who served as a sergeant in the Air Force, and wiped tears from her eyes.
"Just thinking about all those names on the Wall," she said, her arm curled around her 9-year-old daughter, Julia. Nodding toward Shipley, she said, "Had he died over there, I wouldn't exist."
Her father, wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, remained expressionless until his daughter walked away to smoke a cigarette. Then his lips trembled slightly.
"You realize that time does heal all wounds, but not completely," he said, head down, his fingers absently jangling a fistful of change in his pocket.