WASHINGTON — As veterans, VIPs and tourists gathered Saturday to mark the 10th anniversary of the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, many of them might not have been aware of the long struggle that went into creating what has become one of the most-visited sites in the nation's capital.
"There was a group called Save the Mall who didn't want us to build the memorial on this spot," former Sen. Bob Dole recalled during the ceremony. "Our defense was that we'd already saved the mall. We saved everything else in America, because of young men who were willing to lay down their lives."
"When we designed it and built it, there was a lot of opposition," said the memorial's designer, Austrian-born Friedrich St. Florian. "It was quite a struggle to actually get it built. But in my heart, I never doubted that eventually the memorial itself would prevail and redeem itself. It now has taken its rightful place among the great memorials."
Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, who introduced the bill to create the memorial to the more than 400,000 Americans who perished in World War II, said that it's "hard to imagine the difficult journey from introduction of that simple bill in 1987 to the dedication of the memorial on May 25, 2004. Seventeen years later."
But the focus of the event was on the veterans of the "Greatest Generation."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the keynote speaker, is a Vietnam veteran whose father, Charles Dean Hagel, served in World War II. "Anyone who grew up in a household with a World War II veteran knows the values, the standards, the expectations that were imbued in each of us," he said. "As we age, and hopefully become wiser, we recognize more and more every day the depth and the width of what our World War II veterans did. Not just during the conflict, but when they came home."
Hagel added that like all memorials, this one "was built to honor the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, but also to instruct future generations that war is not an abstraction. War is real, with real consequences. This memorial was built to remind us that the peace, prosperity and freedom we all enjoy today was delivered by those who fought in the deserts of North Africa, on the beaches of Normandy, on the high seas and in the air, and everywhere in the Pacific. And it has been preserved by the men and women who stepped forward to wear the uniform of this nation in the decades that followed.
"This nation may never again be shaped and led by an entire generation that fought and bled so completely for their country," Hagel said. "But the legacy of our fathers, our grandfathers and great grandfathers will forever endure. This legacy remains alive today in the millions of men and women who have stepped forward to serve our nation over the past 13 years of war. They, too, are a great generation, and their humility, patriotism and selflessness continues to inspire us all."
Kaptur remembered the veteran who cornered the young congresswoman at an Ohio fish fry and demanded to know why there was no monument honoring World War II veterans in Washington. "It was the vision and the dream of a remarkable and humble man in northwest Ohio" named Roger Durbin, a mail carrier and Battle of the Bulge veteran who "wanted to encompass the full story of liberty's path in the 20th century."
Designer St. Florian, who considers the memorial "the crowning achievement of my career," echoed Hagel's comments about the impact on the descendants of the veterans. "Memorials, really, as much as they are important for the veterans, they are built for future generations," he said. "They must remember the struggle of World War II, and they have to make the same commitment to defend freedom and democracy."
But for now, the greatest impact is still on the Greatest Generation. "Elizabeth and I enjoy coming down on Saturdays and greeting veterans from all across the country," Dole said. "These are people 89, 90, 91, 105. They make me feel good when they're 105.
"It's interesting to watch these older men and some women when they come into the memorial. It's a very emotional experience, and there are a lot of tears shed by these rugged older guys. They're so thankful that the memorial is here, and that they have a chance to visit it through the Honor Flight program."