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U.S.: World War II Memorial Unveiled In Washington

Rebecca Sklepovich

Washington has a new monument. The World War II Memorial was dedicated during the Memorial Day weekend. Tens of thousands of veterans, their friends and family members, came to pay tribute to the 405,399 American troops who died in combat during the 20th century's largest conflict. From Washington, RFE/RL correspondent Rebecca Sklepovich interviewed some of the participants and files this report on the capital's newest monument.

Washington, 4 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- On a cool, sunny day in Washington, 117,000 ticket holders and many thousands more spectators came to the dedication of the World War II Memorial. U.S. President George W. Bush and former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush were all present at the ceremony. Heightened security was widely visible as a result of recently increased terrorist threat warnings and emergency medical vehicles stood by to deal with the potential health problems of aging veterans. Concerns about health and safety, however, could not deter the spirit of those in attendance, many of whom had been waiting decades for this monument.

Sixty percent of those in the audience were veterans. Of the approximately 16 million American soldiers who served in World War II, only 4 million are still alive. Close to 1,000 veterans die every day.

Mike Balbry, a veteran from South Dakota, commented on the timeliness of the memorial's dedication: "Well, I thought I better come while I'm still here. My buddies are leaving us, 1,000 every day, so I don't know when the time comes, but I'm glad I'm here."

The process of creating the memorial has been an exhaustive one. The idea was first proposed in Congress in 1987. Six years later, in 1993, Clinton signed legislation which allowed the American Battle Monuments Commission to create a World War II memorial in Washington..

In 1995, Clinton held a ceremony in which the memorial site was officially dedicated. The memorial currently stands between two other famed Washington landmarks -- the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. In 1996, Friderich St. Florian, an Austrian-born architect, won a national contest to design the memorial, beating out 600 other entries. His design underwent modifications and was approved in 1998. The monument now consists of 56 pillars, each representing a different U.S. state or territory which participated in the war. There are also two arches, one commemorating the Atlantic theater of the war and one commemorating the Pacific. In the middle are 4,000 gold stars, each celebrating the lives of 100 fallen soldiers. Construction of the memorial began in September of 2001 and the memorial was opened to the public in April of 2004 though not officially dedicated until 29 May.

Funds to build the memorial came from a campaign led by former U.S. Senator Bob Dole -- a wounded war veteran and one-time presidential candidate -- and Frederick Smith, president of the FedEx Corporation. Approximately $195 million were collected in donations. Much of the public support for the memorial was generated by American actor Tom Hanks, star of the World War II film "Saving Private Ryan," and U.S. television news anchor Tom Brokaw, who authored "The Greatest Generation," a book about the sacrifices made by World War II veterans.

Robin Priday, a veteran from Ohio, recalls public involvement in the efforts to build the monument: "Well, being a World War II veteran, I was very interested in this memorial. It's been a long time being built and we keep getting reports on it, and people wanting money to build it. We have quite an investment in this thing and we thought that we ought to come over it and see it dedicated."

Those who came to the memorial's dedication seemed pleased with the final results of years of planning.

Susan Clift, the daughter of a World War II veteran from Las Vegas, expressed a positive reaction to the memorial: "My father served aboard the 'U.S.S. Bagley' during the Battle of Midway and in Guadal Canal, and so he passed away two years ago, so I came to honor him, and that's what brought me here today and I think this is wonderful. It's absolutely beautiful and I wished it could have been sooner so more could be here, but I'm grateful it's now. They've done a good job."

The veterans were appreciative of the effort that had been made to honor their wartime service. They noted that school children had given them cards and letters, thanking them for their commitment to the United States. Many veterans were impressed with the gestures of appreciation as well as the grandeur and scale of the memorial. Some, such as James McCrary, a veteran from Tennessee, were simply happy to be involved with the event: "I think it's great to have a memorial and I'm proud to be part of it."

The monument, however, has already received its share of criticism. Some argue that it took far too long to construct the monument, which was dedicated nearly six decades after the war ended. Critics are divided between those that feel the monument is too ambiguous in its meaning and those that believe the monument's message is overly explicit. Others dislike the location of the memorial, saying that it detracts from the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Finally, some claim that war memorials in general have the negative characteristic of glorifying war.

The memorial's dedication occurred at an interesting time. While World War II is often described as the "last great war," the current war in Iraq was met with mixed opinion and large protests, being described by opponents as "unjustified." Rhetoric comparing the two conflicts, particularly similarities between Sadaam Hussein and Adolf Hitler, has been heavily scrutinized. Despite the controversy of the current war, the dedication of the World War II Memorial was met with widespread public support and approval.