July 4 (UPI) -- Surrounded by U.S. weaponry and in front of a rain-soaked crowd of thousands, President Donald Trump took the stage in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Thursday evening with first lady Melania Trump and called for national unity in an event he organized to honor U.S. troops on Independence Day.
During his 45-minute speech, Trump told the crowd assembled for "Salute to America" that they all share a "truly extraordinary heritage" and are a part of one of the greatest stories ever told --- the story of America.
"It is the epic tale of a great nation whose people have risked everything for what they know is right and what they know is true," he said. "It is the chronicle of great citizens who never give up on the dream of a better and brighter future and it is the saga of 13 separate colonies that united to form the most just and virtuous republic ever conceived."
Heavy rain fell on Washington for hours, and many braved the weather for hours on the National Mall. Trump stepped onto the stage at about 6:30 p.m.
In his speech, Trump retold of the war that led to the United States gaining independence from Britain, and said that now grasped, its freedom will never be taken away. That spirit to fight for one's freedom is what made the United States what it is and is in every American, he said.
"It is the spirit, daring and defiance, excellence and adventure, courage and confidence, loyalty and love that built this country into the most exceptional nation in the history of the world, and our nation is stronger today than it ever was before. It is its strongest now," he said as the crowd broke into chants of "USA, USA."
The president listed some of the more memorial achievements by U.S. citizens while detailing victories and triumphs of the nation's armed forces.
During his speech that included several flyovers by U.S. aircraft, Trump called for unity, saying the United States must go forward with the same "unity of purpose" it's exhibited throughout history.
"As long as we stay true to our course, as long as we remember our great history, as long as we never, ever stop fighting for a better future, then there will be nothing that America cannot do," he said.
The Independence Day event, which concluded at around 7:30 p.m. EDT, included an assortment of U.S. weaponry, including flyovers by Air Force One, six Blue Angels F-18s and a B-2, among other U.S. aircraft. Two M1 Abrams tanks arrived in the nation's capital Tuesday for the event, and were joined by two M2 Bradley fighting vehicles, an M88 Recovery Vehicle and a contact truck with crew.
The event was free but VIPs, including major Republican donors and military heads, received special seating close up.
Traditionally, fireworks have been set off from the memorial's reflection pool at the conclusion of Thursday night's A Capitol Fourth entertainment show televised by PBS. Instead of being launched from the other side of the National Mall, the display instead ran from Potomac Park and was 15 minutes longer than usual.
"Salute to America" is unrelated to A Capitol Fourth.
"People are coming from far and wide to join us today and tonight for what is turning out to be one of the biggest celebrations in the history of our country, SALUTE TO AMERICA, an all-day event at the Lincoln Memorial, culminating with large scale flyovers of the most modern and advanced aircraft anywhere in the World," Trump tweeted beforehand.
The traditional July 4th parade took place earlier Thursday, from Seventh to 17th Constitution Avenue. Trump hoped tanks would join the parade route but District of Columbia and military officials feared the heavy armored vehicles -- the Abrams tanks weigh 60 tons each -- would damage roads.
Even Trump acknowledged the problem, telling reporters Monday: "You've got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency not to like to carry heavy tanks."
The entertainment did include the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the U.S. Army Band, the Armed Forces Chorus, the United States Marine Corps Silent Drill Team. About 750-800 military personnel participated in the event.
Because of the aircraft flyovers and fireworks from West Potomac Park, airspace over Washington, D.C., was closed Thursday, and nearly 100 scheduled flights were affected.
The National Park Service granted a permit for a protest along the National Mall that included the Trump baby blimp. Anti-Trump veterans planned to hand out T-shirts for the USS John McCain to oppose Trump, who's criticized the late U.S. senator.
Costs have not been disclosed but The Washington Post reported the National Park Service will redirect at least $2.5 million from park fees to help cover the event. Trump tweeted the cost would be "very little compared to what it's worth."
July Fourth in Washington, D.C.