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Thousands gather to dedicate WWII memorial

By WILL WHITEHORN, UPI Correspondent   |   May 30, 2004 at 3:30 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, May 30 (UPI) -- Tenacious cicadas and the steady heat of a Washington spring did nothing to spoil the jubilation of thousands of veterans and their families immersed in camaraderie and ready to accept the thanks of a grateful nation.

Following years of construction, months of planning and days of celebration, the National World War II Memorial was formally dedicated Saturday in ceremonies on the National Mall. President Bush's dedication on behalf of the country thanked "The Greatest Generation," for the valor, industry and resolve it showed over the decades.

"It is a fitting tribute," Bush said. "Open and expansive like America, grand and enduring like the achievements we honor. The years of WWII were a hard, heroic and gallant time in the life of our country. When it mattered most, an entire generation of Americans showed the finest qualities of our nation, and of humanity."

"In all, over 16 million Americans put on the uniform of the solider, the sailor, the airmen, the Marine, the Coast Guardsmen or the Merchant Mariner," he continued. "They came from city streets and prairie towns, from public high schools and West Point. They were a modest bunch, and still are."

War veterans arrived by droves for memorial celebrations, which began Thursday. Saturday's keynote ceremony drew an estimated 150,000 people to the National Mall, many of whom were overwhelmed by the tribute.

"It was tremendous," said Abraham Thompson, who served in the Army Air Corps and flew raids over Germany, Austria and most of Europe. "It couldn't get any better than this. It was just done so well."

"I think (the memorial) is just great, and its unfortunate that it took so long to have it finished," said Chuck Engelhart, a retired Marine who spent most of the war serving on the Pacific front. "(The celebrations) this week were just great. They gave you a sense that there's still patriotism left in this country, although I think there's too much division of thoughts today."

By early morning Saturday, the National Mall was crowded with onlookers anxious to partake in the weekend's historic festivities. Reunions Halls, war story pavilion, and concessions on the mall were packed with tourists, veterans and their families, as were the thousands of seats surrounding a jumbotron, which televised the dedication ceremony, several hundred yards away, for those without tickets.

Seats at the site of the ceremony were full hours before the dedication, an enthusiastic throng entertained by big band music, swing dancing and documentary footage broadcast of the war shown on a large screen, footage included the battle for Saipan and D-Day. Those who were able danced in the aisles; those who could not watched on and waved miniature U.S. flags, smiling, laughing and remembering.

U.S. Postmaster General John Potter began the ceremony by issuing a commemorative stamp, which bears the monument's likeness against a vanilla sky backdrop. Following some brief words, the flags of every state were introduced, brought from the rear of the ceremony by military personnel, who rested them on a stage where dignitaries, celebrities, military officials and President George H.W. Bush, President Clinton and the present U.S. president.

Several keynote speeches were given, concluding with Bush's remarks, to mark the official recognition of the memorial by the U.S. government. Despite many concerns regarding the health of a largely older crowd and safety following a terror warning issued last week, the ceremony went largely without incident and on track, except some technological glitches that briefly incapacitated the ceremony's large video screen.

NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw's remarks addressed the industry and enterprise of the wartime generation, those in person, those who watched from selected cities on a special satellite feed, and those unable to attend due to health concerns. Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation," was a best seller when it was released in 1998.

"No monument, however well positioned or polished, can take the place of the enduring legacy of all of you, the people that we honor here today," said Brokaw. "Your lives, and how you lived them, the country you defended and loved and cared for, for the rest of your days -- that is the undeniable legacy of you, the men and women I call the 'Greatest Generation.'"

Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and a World War II veteran and icon who raised nearly half of the almost $200 million dollars necessary to construct the monument, thanked two former presidents in attendance for their contributions to the finished monument: George H.W. Bush, who suggested legislation for the construction, and Bill Clinton, who later authorized it.

Dole also acknowledged how World War II veterans had effectively changed the world, not only through their willingness to free foreigners from the grips of despotism, but to change policies on the home front that impeded the United States' own countrymen, minorities and women.

"Our democracy, though imperfect, is more nearly perfect than in the days of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt," he said. "That's what makes America forever a work in progress, a land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming. And that's why the armies of democracy have earned a permanent place on this sacred ground."

The ceremony included a virtual tour of the monument, narrated by actor Tom Hanks, who also spoke. Denyce Graves of the Washington Metropolitan Opera, provided stirring renditions of the "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America," complimented by a military fly-over, which further ignited a spirited and patriotic crowd.

The monument officially opened at 7 p.m. Saturday, when the U.S. flag was raised "over a monument that will stand as long as America itself," according to President George W. Bush.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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