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Veterans Honored at New Memorial

November 12, 2000|DAVID MONTGOMERY and LINDA WHEELER | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — The "greatest generation"--the Americans who endured the Great Depression, fought World War II overseas and at home and painstakingly built the prosperity that followed--had a reunion on the Mall Saturday.

The occasion was the Veterans Day groundbreaking for the World War II Memorial, but what made it extraordinary was the pent-up gratitude of younger people, who seemed to sense that time was running out to say thank you.

"We are the children of your sacrifice," said President Clinton, the baby boomer chief executive. "And we thank you forever."

Similar sentiments, sometimes accompanied by tears, rippled through the crowd of 10,000 at the new memorial's site between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, as family members and strangers spoke of the bad old days and the future. Some wore old but freshly pressed uniforms, and caps with the pins and patches of their units. Some maneuvered with canes or walkers. Children and grandchildren wore cards that announced proudly: World War II generation.

Then a majestic bald eagle named Challenger was released and glided like a silent blessing over the gathering.

'Thank You for Your Service'

On a clear and gusty day when veterans were honored in ceremonies across the region, this was the event that seemed to sum up them all. Men and women who attended separate gatherings at Arlington National Cemetery or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the National Japanese American Memorial also joined the groundbreaking, where they heard actor Tom Hanks read a dry and devastating dispatch by Ernie Pyle about the death of a beloved captain, and then former Sen. Bob Dole, who asked his fellow World War II veterans to stand so he could say simply: "Thank you for your service."

"Someone called it a great generation, and it truly is," said Carolyn King, 74, a nun from Holyoke, Mass., who attended in honor of her big brother, Thomas King, killed at age 22 at the Anzio beachhead in Italy. She absorbed his death and helped build airplanes in a factory during the war. It is a great generation, she said, "because of what they did and the way they did it, and how they unified and sacrificed in every way. And everyone did it together and understood that everyone was doing it."

"This has been an overwhelming experience," said Brianna Yoro, 20, who drove 15 hours with her grandparents from Hamilton, Ala. Her grandfather, Darrel Baker, 73, who hunted Japanese submarines, and her grandmother, Jean Baker, 71, had wept through the two-hour ceremony, thinking of people who were killed. "You admire all these veterans," Yoro said, "but you can never really understand it until you experience a ceremony like this."

Even younger vets who had served their country seemed to feel they owed something to the older warriors.

Robert Davis Sr., 79, of Springfield, Ohio, was sitting on the Mall in a pressed Army uniform his buddies had rustled up for him after his own was lost in a house fire. He wears size 42, the same as when he hit the Normandy beach in France.

A man clad in a lot of black leather, black sunglasses and Harley-Davidson buttons approached, squinting to read Davis' name tag.

"I can't tell you how much I want to thank you," Tom Lloyd, of Fairfax, Va., told Davis, pumping his hand. "We are so grateful to you. Thank you so much, sir!"

Lloyd, 39, an Air Force veteran, said he had ridden his motorcycle to the ceremony specifically to seek out men like Davis.

"He is a hero," Lloyd said. "I felt tears in my eyes just talking to him. We live the way we do because of what he did."

Last Big Gathering of Their Generation

With an estimated 1,000 World War II veterans dying every day, the participants acknowledged that this may be one of the last big gatherings for their generation. The dedication of the monument is scheduled for Memorial Day 2003, but that date is not certain. Opponents of building the monument at that location hope to win a court battle to move the memorial elsewhere on the Mall because they say it would block the vista between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

"They are all starting to pass away," said Denise Duke, 40, of Manassas, Va., a recently retired Navy lieutenant, sitting beside her mother, Dorothy Budacki, 82, a member of the Navy WAVES during World War II. "For them to see this before they leave us is the important thing."

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