WASHINGTON -- Fifty-nine years after World War II ended with Germany's collapse and Japan's surrender, the United States paid its public respects Saturday to the soldiers who fought the war abroad and the women and children who sacrificed food and comfort to support them at home.
The National World War II Memorial , formally dedicated in solemn ceremonies on the Mall, was born in controversy. Preservationists railed against interrupting the vista between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Architecture critics scorned the design, calling it imperial, childish and worse. Congress balked at paying for it. But on Saturday, May 29, with a pleasant breeze and temperatures in the mid-70s, veterans and their families flocked to Washington by the tens of thousands to deliver a resoundingly positive verdict. Some in wheelchairs, others supported by family and friends. Many dressed in respectful blazers but more casual, sensible shoes.
And often there were tears in their eyes as they listened to President Bush, former Kansas Sen. Robert Dole and others describe what the veteran's sacrifices meant to America.
"These were the modest sons of a peaceful country, and millions of us are very proud to call them 'Dad,' " Bush said, with his father, former President Bush, sitting behind him on the dais, along with former President Clinton. "They gave the best years of their lives to the greatest mission their country ever accepted."
Sixteen million Americans served in the war -- 400,000 died.
"What we dedicate today is not a memorial to war," Dole said. "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."
The former senator, and GOP presidential candidate in 1996, was so severely wounded in World War II that his right side is disabled, and he disguises a numb right hand by clenching a pen, so that people he met during a 46-year career in electoral politics instinctively shook his left hand. "We have kept faith with our comrades from a distant youth," said Dole, who could not resist a joke on looking out at the audience. "I never had a crowd like this when I was running," he quipped.
The emotional high of the day may have come at the ceremony's end, when opera singer Denyce Graves sang God Bless America and Air Force F-16s performed a fly-over. Veterans stood up and cheered as the jets raced down the length of the Mall and over the Capitol. "It was the most moving experience we've had since the end of the war," said Wayne Johnson of Silver Bay, Minn., who served with the 14th Air Force. "It was awe-inspiring."
"I said if we were still alive, we were going to be here for this," said Eleanor Koerner, 82, who came to the dedication from Dover, Del. Next to her was her 83-year-old husband Richard, proud to still be wearing his World War II flight suit and jacket from the 15th Air Force.
Police estimated the crowd on the Mall at 140,000 -- likely the largest gathering of World War II survivors at any time since the war ended. Many more watched the event on jumbo television screens at nearby locations. At the memorial, veterans gave a standing ovation to Medal of Honor winners -- 464 such medals, the nation's highest decoration, were issued in World War II. And they gave Dole an ovation, too. Dole was instrumental in seeing the memorial through to completion. When fund-raising flagged, he said, then-president Clinton invited him and others planning the memorial to the White House, to meet with potential contributors.
After Congress balked at funding it, a private fund-raising campaign was launched that ultimately raised more than $164 million-plus from corporations and 600,000 individual donations. The drive was spear-headed by an advertising campaign featuring actor Tom Hanks, who played a World War II infantry officer in the film "Saving Private Ryan." The campaign's theme was, "It's time to say thanks."
The ceremony Saturday did not begin until 2 p.m. Eastern Time, but the first veteran arrived at 6:20 a.m., planners said. Emergency crews reported few medical problems. "They're a resilient bunch," said one official.
Though the memorial had many fathers, an early impetus came at an Ohio fish fry in 1987, when a veteran named Roger Durbin asked his congressional representative why there was no World War II memorial to show his grandchildren in Washington. Durbin has since died, but Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), with Durbin's granddaughter at her side, helped dedicate the new memorial to "the most unselfish generation America has ever known."
By bus, train and the power of their own legs, members of that generation and their relatives and friends descended on the Mall, normally a place for gagling tourists and sometimes protests, but this day a place of commemoration.
They came from all over the country, with their stories and their memories:
The memorial, on 7.4 acres of land, commemorates not only the millions who served in war, but the millions who worked in factories and tended the home front so that the American military, which President Bush said ranked 17th in the world at the start of the war, could muscle to victory against the foes in Germany and Japan.
A Freedom Wall features 4,000 gold stars, one for each 100 Americans who lost their lives, with the inscription, "Here we mark the price of freedom."
The president accepted the memorial on behalf of the public. He and others talked of how much the war changed the country, and for the better. "America gained strength because African Americans and Japanese Americans and others fought for their country, which wasn't always fair to them," Bush said. "In time, these contributions became expectations of equality, and the advances for justice in postwar America made us a better country."
One African American who served in the infantry, James Hawkins of Deer Park, N.Y., said that he was glad to be alive. Part of the Normandy invading force on D-day, Hawkins, who came with his wife of 56 years, Ismay, said: "I'm here to speak. It was hell. I was one of the lucky ones."
The day's events began with a service at the Washington Cathedral, where the president's father, a Navy pilot shot down over the South Pacific in 1944, spoke.
"The price of victory was high, but the price of defeat would have been far greater," he said.