WASHINGTON - The memories came to Joseph Schrock clear as the cloudless blue sky as he slowly walked around the new World War II Memorial, leaning on his wooden cane. There was his time with the horse cavalry, then the Army Air Corps, his 3 1/2 years in Europe, the journal he kept ...
In mid-memory, a stranger in a business suit and high heels stopped him. "Thank you," said the woman, a Red Cross employee, extending a hand. "If it wasn't for you guys ... thank you."
Schrock, an 87-year-old former Army master sergeant from Portland, Ore., nodded. "A lot of very sad memories," he said. And now, he added, more sorrowful memories are in the making in a war whose purpose seems hazy to him.
"There's a shadow hanging over us," the veteran said of the war in Iraq. "That's depressing. Being an American, I know we'll win out in the end. But I've been praying that it will come to a conclusion we can live with."
As the sprawling World War II Memorial opened to visitors yesterday, a month before its official dedication on Memorial Day weekend, thousands came to remember, honor or learn about the 16 million U.S. men and women who served more than a half-century ago.
As the tourists, school groups, federal workers on lunch breaks and veterans from around the country walked around the granite columns, the sparkling fountains and waterfalls, the arches, eagles and wall of gold stars, some also found themselves reflecting on war - past and present.
Denis Kelly, 77, of Baraboo, Wis., a veteran of both World War II and Korea, looked at the curved wall of 4,000 gold-plated stars, each representing 100 U.S. service members who were killed in World War II, with the etched words: HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM.
"We were hoping there'd never be another war," Kelly, a retired electrician, said. "It's such a shame in Iraq, all the soldiers dying. Do you think they'll ever settle it?"
Plans for the World War II Memorial had raised concerns that the 7.4-acre site would obstruct the view between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. Yet spectators seemed unanimously impressed with the newest addition to the National Mall.
Veterans especially, recognizable by a cap, a pin or just something in their gaze, seemed overwhelmed.
"Absolutely fabulous." "Someplace to come and remember." "Long, long, long overdue."
"It brings back a lot of thoughts," said Harold D. Snyder, 78, of Wyckoff, N.J., his bottom lip quivering as he fought back tears. A former tail gunner in the Army Air Corps, he could manage only one more word to capture those thoughts: "Friends."
"I didn't think it would be this big or this beautiful," said Paul Stroup, 74, of Henderson, Nev., with the submarine service in the Pacific.
Alexander J. Eucare, 77, of District Heights, Md., a U.S. flag pin and combat infantry badge on his black suit, the flag of his K Company, 409th regiment, 103rd infantry firmly in his grasp, stood proudly as passers-by offered their hands, their respect, their questions and their own stories.
"Thank you," said Sgt. Maj. Edmund Crivello, 53, a Persian Gulf War veteran stationed at Fort McNair in Washington. "I wish my dad were here to see this."
With fund raising led by former Sen. Bob Dole, a World War II hero, and Tom Hanks, who starred in the World War II film Saving Private Ryan," the memorial has been eagerly awaited since 1987, when Congress introduced legislation for its construction.
With World War II veterans dying at a rate of about 1,100 a day, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission, the project's sponsor, memorial officials opened the gates as soon as possible to allow as many veterans as possible to visit. They are hoping that the official opening on May 29 will be the largest reunion ever of World War II veterans.
"We made it," H.D. Elliott, an 83-year-old veteran from Waldorf, Md., said to his wife, Berneda, as they gazed on the structure.
Fifty-six granite pillars, representing each state and territory from that period and the District of Columbia, form the oval shape of the memorial and surround a sunken plaza and vast pool. Taller arches on the north and south sides mark the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war.
Kent Mosmiller, the memorial's quality control superintendent, has been coming to the site every workday since the first bulldozers arrived on the site in 2001, leaving his Baltimore home at 4:30 a.m. for the long commute. "Everyone on the job, from laborer to the top person, understands what we're building here," Mosmiller said.
Many spectators who strolled by the elm trees lining the memorial or stood before the heroic words of military leaders and presidents etched into the granite walls, said they couldn't help but think of the past in the context of the current Iraq war.