WASHINGTON – America dedicated a memorial Saturday to the fast-thinning ranks of World War II veterans, a poignant last hurrah drawing together tens of thousands of old soldiers, sailors and heroes of the home front.
The National Mall, where huge numbers usually gather in protest, instead offered a last-of-a-lifetime scene of commemoration as veterans assembled by the sweeping monument of granite and bronze that was more than a decade in the planning.
“We have kept faith with our comrades from a distant youth,” said former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, a driving force for the memorial. An Army lieutenant in the war, Dole lost the use of his right arm when he was injured by a shell blast while serving in Italy.
“What we dedicate today is not a memorial to war. Rather, it is a tribute to the physical and moral courage that makes heroes out of farm and city boys, that inspires Americans of every generation to lay down their lives for people they’ll never meet,” Dole told a crowd estimated at 140,000 by police.
Many veterans gripped canes. Others sat in wheelchairs. The hardiest among them grabbed their wives and danced in the aisles when 1940s swing music wafted over the crowd.
“I figured this would be the last time to wear a uniform,” said William 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 decorations.
Covering seven landscaped acres, the World War II Memorial was built with a sense of urgency once the government resolved to go ahead with it. WWII veterans are in their late 70s and in their 80s. Of the 16 million who served, only about 4 million are still alive, and veterans from that war are dying at a rate of 1,056 a day.
“These were the modest sons of a peaceful country,” President Bush declared. “They gave the best years of their lives to the greatest mission their country ever accepted.”
Many veterans lamented that the nation’s tribute came too late for most of their comrades. “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, Calif.
Dole, 80, called the gathering “our final reunion.”
Cool temperatures and bright sunshine greeted the dedication, a relief to emergency crews that had prepared for large numbers of medical problems. Authorities said they treated 110 people, mostly for minor conditions such as mild dehydration, scrapes and twisted ankles, of whom 30 were taken to hospitals as a precaution.
The memorial features 56 granite pillars, each 17 feet high and representing the states, territories of that time and the District of Columbia, and two arches more than twice that height, symbolizing the two theaters of the war in the Atlantic and Pacific. A wall with 4,000 sculpted gold stars commemorates the more than 400,000 Americans killed during the war.