WASHINGTON - A memorial to one of history's greatest crusades - World War II - will get its official start Saturday, when President Clinton and other dignitaries turn a few shovels of dirt on a small patch of land between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
The $100 million marble memorial, two arches connected by low walls wrapped around a pool and fountains, has been 13 years in the making and will honor the 16 million men and women who served during the war, the 406,000 killed and the millions who supported the war from home.
Besides Clinton, those taking part Saturday - Veterans Day - include former Sen. Bob Dole, chairman of the National World War II Memorial campaign, who was seriously wounded as an Army infantry captain fighting in Italy during the war. Also participating will be actor Tom Hanks, who portrayed an Army infantry captain during and after D-Day in the movie "Saving Private Ryan."
Retired Army Gen. Colin S. Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen are also scheduled to appear at the ceremony, which is expected to draw thousands of World War II veterans from around the country.
The ceremony will begin with a 1940s-style radio show, complete with live music from military bands. Large TV screens will show historical footage of World War II.
Clinton will join some 50 others with ceremonial shovels.
Among them will be 16 male and female World War II veterans from each of the services, including the Coast Guard and merchant marine, as well as a 101-year-old Gold Star mother, whose son was killed during his last scheduled bombing mission in the skies over Germany with the U.S. 8th Air Force.
The 7.4-acre memorial, which is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2003, will be dominated by two 41-foot arches on the north and south ends. Inlaid in the floors of the arches will be World War II victory medals surrounded by the words "Victory on Land," "Victory at Sea" and "Victory in the Air."
Fifty-six granite pillars, each rising to 17 feet, will represent U.S. states and territories. Two 70-foot flagpoles flying the American flag will frame the ceremonial entrance on 17th Street Northwest. A series of 24 bronze bas relief panels along the entrance balustrades will depict America's war years at home and overseas.
At the center of the memorial - inside the existing Rainbow Pool - will be the principal sculpture, the "Light of Freedom," which will celebrate what designers say are the true legacies of World War II, the triumph of democracy over tyranny, freedom over totalitarianism, and light over darkness.
World War II essentially turned a provincial, inward looking America into a world power. America began the war with a military the size of Romania's. Soldiers practiced with fake guns and trucks with the word "tank" painted on the side.
After Pearl Harbor, American factories churned out airplanes, tanks and ships that along with the troops eventually overwhelmed the dictatorial forces of Japan and Germany. The American soldier was victorious over his more authoritarian German foe in key battles such as D-Day, noted author Stephen Ambrose, because the G.I. was nurtured by democracy and was more able to improvise and take individual initiative.
The war left America with a standing Army that would never again be disbanded, as it was after past wars. The war brought African-Americans into combat units, though they were segregated, and women into the work force. It also spurred America's atomic age, fostered the creation of the United Nations and ushered in a Cold War, with American troops and dollars battling the proxies of its one-time World War II ally, the Soviet Union.
The central place on the Mall that the Memorial will occupy reflects the importance of World War II in the nation's history. It will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with two American icons of similar classical design erected in the 19th and 20th centuries: the obelisk of the Washington Monument and the columns of the temple-like Lincoln Memorial.
But the memorial still faces opposition. An organization called World War II Veterans to Save the Mall and other groups filed a lawsuit last month in U.S. District Court in Washington asking that the site be rejected, charging that it will block the open vista between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
The group also claims that incorporating the current Rainbow Pool into the World War II Memorial violates a 1986 federal law, since it would include the pool, which is already part of an existing federal monument: the Lincoln Memorial.
When memorial planners request a building permit next year, opponents say, they will ask a federal judge to halt the project.
Harrison Owen, a spokesman for the veterans' opposition group, said his organization is not against putting the memorial on the Mall but prefers an adjacent piece of land.
"We're respecting World War II veterans," Owen said. "Constitution Garden to the north would be perfect."