A national monument to the 16 million U.S. men and women who served during World War II opened to the public Thursday, giving veterans of that era a sense of recognition some say was long overdue but well worth the wait.
"It is beautiful," declared World War II veteran and former Marine George Lynch. "To see this memorial after all these years is absolutely marvelous."
Gray-haired war veterans sat in quiet reflection. Tourists came by to quietly say thanks. Schoolchildren on field trips crowded around asking for autographs. Decades in the planning, the National World War II Memorial opened to the public Thursday.
Under brilliant spring sunshine, visitors of all ages streamed in to look at Washington's newest memorial and to pay their respects to those who served during one of the country's most difficult and triumphant periods.
The memorial, which sits prominently between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, was long overdue but worth the wait, some vets said.
"It is beautiful," declared George Lynch, an 81-year-old former Marine from Washington. "To see this memorial after all these years is absolutely marvelous."
Lynch was accompanied by another World War II Marine, William "Abby" Abernathy, 91, also of Washington.
"So many people have stopped both Abby and me and said thank you," Lynch said. "I can hardly talk about this without my eyes watering up. It really touches you."
The granite-and-bronze monument features waterfalls, fountains, and a curved wall bedecked with gold stars representing the more than 400,000 who gave their lives in the war. It has two hulking 43-foot arches at each end, one marked Atlantic and the other Pacific. They symbolize the two theaters of the war.
Fifty-six smaller granite pillars adorned with two bronze wreaths form the oval shape of the memorial and encircle a sunken plaza and pool. Each pillar in engraved with the name of a state or territory from that period.
While the formal dedication ceremony is a month away, project organizers raced to put the finishing touches on the memorial so the ever-dwindling number of World War II veterans could come to see it as soon as possible.
World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1,056 a day, the Veterans Affairs Department estimates. Fewer than 4 million of the 16 million who served will be alive at the time of the May 29 dedication.
Fred Smith of Rockville, Md., served in the Army Air Corps, which later became the Air Force. He said the memorial is a grand tribute. "There are an awful lot of guys who I knew that are gone now, but they would have loved this," he said.
Another veteran, Henry Wilayto, said the size of the memorial _which stretches the length of a football field — was especially fitting.
"I think it's far more than I thought they were going to do," said Wilayto, a former Army staff sergeant from Concord, Mass. "I thought it would be a real small one, but they've gone completely into the depths that they should have."
Among the first in line on opening day were hundreds of schoolchildren from Newtown, Conn., and Toledo, Ohio — some of whom had grandfathers who served in the war.
The $174 million memorial was almost two decades in the making.
Legislation was introduced in 1987 by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who was prompted by an encounter with 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. Together, they worked to get legislation passed so the memorial could be built.
Congress gave its approval in 1993, but that was followed by court challenges from critics who claimed the monument would clutter the Mall and interfere with sweeping vistas long enjoyed by visitors. Construction began in late 2001.
The dedication next month is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people. Durbin died four months before ground was broken, but family members and friends will attend.
To coincide with the dedication, the U.S. Postal Service plans to issue a stamp depicting the monument. It will be on sale the day of the ceremony.
On the Net:
World War II Memorial: http://www.wwiimemorial.com