WASHINGTON - Thousands of World War II veterans, some striding briskly, others clutching canes or riding wheelchairs, descended on the sun-drenched National Mall yesterday to witness the dedication of a memorial to honor their service and heroism six decades ago.
As 1940s swing music blared from speakers and President Bush thanked the veterans for having "saved our country," some of them observed that the day had been too long in coming and that so many of their comrades who should have experienced it had died.
"We have lost too many soldiers, sailors, Marines who should have seen this happen," said 85-year-old Madeline Batten, whose husband, John, fought in the Army at the D-Day beachhead in Normandy. John Batten, who had been eager to stand with his wife at the National World War II Memorial, died of a heart attack seven months ago.
So Madeline came without him, at times fighting tears at an event that conjured haunting memories of war carnage she had witnessed herself. As a young woman, she served as a Navy specialist at Pearl Harbor, packing parachutes when Japanese planes struck. She rushed to the sinking USS Arizona to try to help the victims.
"We thought ours was the war to end all wars," said Batten, who drove 13 hours from her home in Vermont. "But I guess, looking today, there will always be war."
The dedication, on a cool and breezy spring day, was the centerpiece of four days of events around Washington, including reunion gatherings, prayer services and swing band concerts.
In addition to Bush, the afternoon ceremony drew two former presidents, Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush, a World War II veteran. Sen. John Kerry attended as part of a congressional delegation. Former Sen. Bob Dole, who addressed his fellow World War II veterans, had made it a personal crusade to lead fund-raising efforts for the memorial.
At a time when the Iraq war has touched off sharp debate about its rationale, the dedication yesterday recalled an earlier war that drew Americans firmly together behind a conflict and a cause.
In his speech, the president said America's World War II fighting force was "a modest bunch," from "city streets and prairie towns," who had "saved our country and thereby saved the liberty of mankind."
"At this place, at this memorial, we acknowledge a debt of long-standing thanks to an entire generation of Americans," Bush said. He concluded by asking everyone from the World War II generation - which amounted to most of the 117,000 ticket holders - to rise and accept the nation's gratitude. Many in wheelchairs struggled to their feet for a few brief moments.
The evil that U.S. forces confronted in the war, the president said, "confirmed forever America's calling to oppose the ideologies of death." Those words seemed to echo the rhetoric Bush has used to explain why America must continue to fight a war on terrorism, which he has said includes Iraq.
The president's father, a Navy pilot who was shot down over the Pacific in 1944, said of his fellow veterans that "no matter the danger or hardship, they responded with exceptional bravery."
Among them was Vyron Drake, 81, who was awarded the Purple Heart three times during the war. He was deeply stirred, he said, by the new memorial.
"I don't think anyone can look at the stars in the fountain that represent 400,000 lives and not be impressed," Drake said.
The last time he was wounded in battle, it was at Nuremberg, where Drake was shot in the throat as he carried his bleeding commanding officer to a medic station.
Yesterday, he and his wife, both in wheelchairs, sat in the shade of a rest tent and drank bottled water. "Our kids made us" take the break, Drake said with a roll of his eyes. Later, he said he was glad to get a little rest and soak in the ceremony.
"I got a little water in my eyes," Drake said. "It was fantastic."
Arthur Fong, 78, sat directly in front of the stage and remembered a fellow World War II veteran he played tennis with and an old friend from Navy boot camp, both dead.
"It comes too late for lots of people," Fong said of the memorial. But, he added, "I wouldn't miss this. It's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing."
Fong, who emigrated from China when he was 12, spoke passionately about the freedom America embodies for him, pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket to wipe his eyes.
"My love for this life I have come to know - there's no greater country than what we have," he said.
With the federal government warning of fresh terrorism threats, security was exceedingly tight. A huge swath of the Mall, reaching from the Lincoln Memorial, past the new memorial in front of the Reflecting Pool, all the way past the Washington Monument, was cordoned off. It was open only to the 117,000 ticket holders, who had to pass through metal detectors. Crowds began arriving at 8 a.m., six hours before ceremonies began.