WASHINGTON — Bells tolled from the National Cathedral Saturday, and swing music from the 1940s rang out at the Mall as veterans of World War II assembled by the tens of thousands for the dedication of a
memorial to their great struggle.
A service of celebration and thanksgiving at the cathedral opened a day of remembrance for a passing generation.
Old soldiers, many gripping canes or in wheelchairs, welcomed the tribute to their service while lamenting that the memorial has come too late for so many 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 Ray, Calif., taking his seat at the Mall on a cool spring morning.
Only about one in four veterans of the war is still alive. WWII veterans are dying at an alarming rate of 1,100 every day.
Veterans began lining up on the Mall at dawn, more than 100,000 with tickets for the afternoon dedication of the sweeping granite and bronze monument between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
With heightened concerns about terrorism and a speech by President Bush on the agenda, security was extremely tight for the dedication.
Bush was sharing the stage with his father, the former president, who was a World War II Navy pilot, former President Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole, a World War II veteran who was instrumental in fund raising for the memorial.
Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and a Vietnam veteran, was joining a congressional delegation at the ceremony.
16 Million Americans fought in World War II. 60 years later, less than five million are left.
Several dozen North Carolina veterans who could not make the trip to D.C. met in Durham to watch the dedication.
They thought it was great that the Greatest Generation finally has a memorial worthy of its title.
"I'm very proud of having enlisted and put in my time," WWII veteran Charles Goldstein said during the gathering at Durham's Museum of Life and Science. "I could have stayed home and watched it on TV, but I wanted something more meaningful."
Like the comraderie only soldiers know.
"Mere presence," Goldstein said. "You look at each other, and you feel empathy or whatever you might want to call it, and you feel a kinship."
The Durham event was sponsored by Congressman David Price.
At the cathedral in Washington Saturday, the elder Bush recalled the "ill-prepared ... slow-to-anger" free nations that were at first reluctant to stand up against Germany and Japan but "once provoked, were unrelenting."
Of the Americans who served, he said: "These were average men and women who lived in extraordinary times. No matter the danger or hardship, they responded with exceptional bravery."
And of the enemy, he said: "Such was their brutal, thoroughly evil nature that in hindsight their actions almost seem surreal, as if they occurred in another lifetime."
On the eve of the dedication, veterans snapped pictures of the memorial or stood quietly, holding loved ones' hands, as they read inscriptions etched into the stone from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Marvin Spencer of Texas City, Texas, said the memorial serves as a lasting salute to his generation and a history lesson for future ones.
"About all of us are going to be gone in 10 years, but other people will see it and know what we did," said Spencer, who is 82 and served in the Army's 80th Infantry Division.
For 77-year-old Navy and Coast Guard veteran Jack Walsh, the memorial brought back painful memories of those who didn't return from the war. "I never thought about them until I came here," said Walsh, of Johnstown, Ohio.
The idea for the memorial came nearly two decades ago, after an encounter between Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and World War II veteran Roger Durbin. In front of a crowd at a political event, Durbin asked Kaptur why there was no World War II memorial. In 1987, she introduced a bill and they worked together to get the legislation passed so the memorial could be built.
Congress authorized construction of the memorial in 1993, but critics complained its large-scale design would spoil the vistas long enjoyed by visitors to the Mall. After a two-year battle, the courts rejected the challenge from memorial opponents.
Ground was broken in late 2001. The memorial was opened to the public in April. Organizers did not want to wait until the formal Memorial Day weekend dedication ceremony because the delay would limit the number of veterans who could see it.
The $174 million memorial celebrates not only the service of the men and women in uniform but the millions more who helped win the war at home.