San Diego Union Tribune

May 30, 2004

A national salute
WWII Memorial dedicated in Washington to honor veterans' service, sacrifice


WASHINGTON The nation paid tribute yesterday to the veterans of World War II by dedicating a long-delayed national memorial to the millions of Americans who served in uniform or labored on the home front to win the global struggle.

Three presidents joined the tens of thousands of aging veterans, many proudly wearing old uniforms or caps, who gathered on the National Mall for the 90-minute ceremony recognizing their service and sacrifice.

"When it mattered most, an entire generation of Americans stepped forward to fight evil and show the finest qualities of our nation, and of humanity," President Bush told the crowd of about 150,000 veterans, family members and friends. "On this day, in their honor, we will raise the American flag over a monument that will stand as long as America itself."

In describing the World War II veterans, Bush noted that "many of us were proud to call them 'Dad,' " a nod to his own father, former President George H.W. Bush, who was a Navy pilot during the war and who sat next to former President Bill Clinton on the stage yesterday.

Many veterans gripped canes. Others sat in wheelchairs. Before the ceremony, the armed services bands played many of the swing tunes popular during the 1940s, and a few of the veterans and their wives were still able to show off the jitterbug steps they learned half a century ago.

"I figured this would be the last time to wear a uniform," said William E. Ryan, 80, a retired colonel from Fairfax, Va., who fought in France and Germany with the Army's 3rd Infantry. He was in full-dress whites, a Purple Heart among his chest decorations.

Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan, who was seriously wounded as an Army lieutenant in Italy and served as a co-chairman of the drive to finance the memorial, told his fellow veterans that their twilight years can be brightened "by the knowledge that we have kept faith with our comrades from our distant youth."

Design and construction of the memorial was financed by almost $200 million in donations, including more than 600,000 private contributions, Dole said.

"What we dedicate today is not a memorial to war," Dole said. "Rather, it is a tribute to the physical and moral courage that made heroes out of farm and city boys, that inspires Americans of every generation to lay down their lives for people they will never meet, for ideals that make life itself worth living."

Actor Tom Hanks, who was drawn to the memorial fund-raising cause after his role as an Army Ranger captain in the film "Saving Private Ryan," helped the effort by doing a series of commercials in which he said the World War II generation "did nothing less than save the world. Isn't it time we said thank you?"

Hanks urged the audience yesterday to remember "not just those who lost their lives in the war," but all Americans of that time "who chose to serve the best they could from 1941 to 1945."

Yesterday's dedication of the World War II Memorial came nearly 59 years after the end of the war, and after a 17-year struggle to get it built.

That effort began at a 1987 political event, when World War II Army veteran Roger Durbin asked Rep. Nancy Kaptur, D-Ohio, why there was no memorial for his war in Washington. Kaptur said she was surprised to learn that Durbin was right, and she introduced legislation that year to authorize one.

Despite the large number of surviving veterans including more than a score serving in Congress it took six years before the authorizing legislation was signed into law by then-President Clinton.

But that only started a second struggle, over the memorial's design and location. Critics complained its large-scale design would spoil the vistas long enjoyed by visitors to the Mall. Courts eventually rejected the challenge.

Sadly, the dedication did not come soon enough for many, including Durbin. World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 1,056 a day. Fewer than four million of the 16 million who served are still alive. The youngest are in their late 70s.

"I wish they would have done it much sooner because there's a lot of people from that generation who are gone," said Don LaFond, 81, a Marine Corps veteran from Marina del Rey.

Dole, 80, called the gathering "our final reunion."

Covering 7.4 acres between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, the memorial consists of an elliptical plaza of polished granite, with a pool and fountains in the center. It is ringed by 56 square granite columns each 17 feet high and representing the states, territories of the time and the District of Columbia and two tall arches labeled Atlantic and Pacific for the major theaters of the war.

One wall is studded with 4,000 gold stars, the symbol that hung in the windows of thousands of homes during the war to show the death of a family member. Each star represents 100 service members who died during the conflict.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Bush's likely challenger in the Nov. 2 election, attended the dedication, but their paths did not cross.

As Bush spoke from the stage, Kerry sat at least 150 yards away among the crowd. He applauded the president's remarks and later told reporters he thought the ceremony "could not have been more appropriate."

The veterans' pride and gratitude at the national recognition seemed universal as the president said: "They gave the best years of their lives for the greatest mission their country ever accepted. . . . They saved our country."

Bush then asked the veterans to "stand as you are able to receive the recognition you deserve."

The crowd responded with prolonged applause as the elderly veterans stood with smiles, and a few tears.