Saul Loeb / KRT The Washington Monument officially got a new neighbor on the Mall Saturday with the dedication of the World War II Memorial.Saul Loeb / KRT Veterans salute during the National Anthem at the dedication of the World War II Memorial.Saul Loeb / KRT Thousands of people unable to get tickets to the dedication ceremony watched on monitors near the Capitol.Chuck Kennedy / KRT Ransom Jordan and Thomas "Top" Vernor salute during the dedication ceremony.Saul Loeb / KRT World War II veteran W.A. Wolfe of West Virginia, at the dedication.George Bridges / KRT President George W. Bush speaks at the dedication of the World War II Memorial.George Bridges / KRT Former President George H.W. Bush, right, give former President Bill Clinton a playful shove as they talk with President George W. Bush at the dedication.Related story: Memorial dedication was a reunion for veterans. (Click here)

President's speech: The full text of President Bush's speech at Saturday's dedication. (Click here)

WASHINGTON — Memorial Day belongs to all U.S. veterans, but Memorial Day 2004 belonged especially to the men and women of "The Greatest Generation," Americans who helped win World War II.

Coming together on an unseasonably cool and clear day, three U.S. presidents — the current President Bush and his father, President George H.W. Bush, and President Bill Clinton — and a host of famous guests led a ceremony Saturday to dedicate the long-awaited World War II Memorial here.

The seven-acre monument of marble, brass, grass and fountains commemorates the 16 million people who served in the U.S. military during World War II and the uncounted millions who supported them on the home front.

The memorial "is a celebration of all that brought America together," said Tom Hanks, a movie actor known for his roles in "Saving Private Ryan" and as producer of "Band of Brothers."

And veterans came by the thousands to see their monument officially opened.

They came to the National Mall in wheelchairs and walkers, on crutches and wearing uniforms smelling of mothballs that sagged where strong, young muscle once supported the fabric. They wore patches of units long since disbanded and medals tarnished with the grime of 60 years.

Their eyes shined with tears of pride as they heard famous men sing their praises.

"When it mattered most, an entire generation of Americans showed the best qualities this nation represents," President Bush said. "They gave the best years of their lives to the greatest mission this country has ever accepted."

The memorial that commemorates these people, Bush said, "is a fitting tribute: open and expansive like America; grand and enduring … this is a monument that will stand as long as America itself."

"This is long overdue," Gen. P.X. Kelley, a retired Marine who heads the American Battle Monuments Commission, said of the monument.

Tom Brokaw, news anchor and origin of "The Greatest Generation" moniker, agreed.

"It has taken too long to erect this monument," Brokaw said.

World War II was "the most significant event in the history of mankind," Kelley said.

Those Americans who decided to bring America into the fight "bet the future of this country on the unconditional necessity of absolute victory," Brokaw said.

But World War II "was a war that for all its cruelties and terrible cost, was a just war, and a great victory," Brokaw said.

Many of the people who the memorial celebrates are dead. Some 407,316 never even made it to see the end of the war they won.

"So many dreams were lost in the madness that engulfed us," Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said. "The platform of peace they built was built from real suffering."

The other members of "The Greatest Generation" are passing away by the thousands every day. Soon, no one will be left who can tell the story of his experiences during the war, former Sen. Bob Dole, himself a much-decorated WWII veteran, told the crowd.

"Our final reunion cannot long be delayed," Dole said.

Now the torch has been passed, Dole said, to those who are fighting and dying for America in today’s wars.

These servicemembers, Dole said, "are the latest link in a chain of sacrifice older than America itself."

Sen. John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, was mobbed as he passed through the crowd, stopping for pictures with excited attendees.

When asked what he had to say to servicemembers downrange, he replied, "Our support for you is 100,000 percent. We hope you get home as soon as possible, as safe as possible."

Yet "while this was a great generation, it was not perfect," Brokaw said. "As the men and women of the greatest generation know, not everyone in their own generation was up to the standard."

"There were the slackers and the cowards, the profiteers and the blowhards, the bullies and the boneheads. But they’ve been forgotten now," Browkaw said. "They’ve been lost in the pettiness of their own behavior, overwhelmed by the sweeping and indisputable achievements of the authentic members of your generation."

"Our boys weren’t angels, they were flesh and blood, with the limits and fear of flesh and blood," Bush said. "That only makes the achievement more remarkable … Wherever they advanced and touched ground, they are remembered for their goodness and their decency."

Stripes reporters Sandra Jontz and Pat Dickson contributed to this report.

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