A belated but worthy tribute

May 31, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - One year shy of half a century after the end of the war against fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan, the veterans of that war - now dubbed "the greatest generation" for saving Western democracy - finally have their memorial.

Men and women in their late 70s and 80s and 90s, some of them admittedly puzzled as to why the Vietnam and Korean war veterans were memorialized before the World War II vets, are streaming here daily now.

Raymond Pyles, 80, of Wheaton, a veteran of the Battle of Bulge, says: "It's beautiful, but it took a long time getting here."

The World War II Memorial is being dedicated appropriately this Memorial Day weekend. But the planners opened it a couple of weeks earlier in the knowledge that WWII veterans are dying at the rate of about 1,100 a day, and they wanted to give as many as possible a chance to see it.

It is a grand display at the foot of the Washington Memorial, consisting of tall, flat columns with metal wreaths bearing the names of the American states and territories, arranged on either side of the reflecting pool that stretches west to the Lincoln Memorial.

On each side is a taller arch, one marked "Atlantic" and the other "Pacific," with the battles fought in each theater engraved in a semicircle around a sunken pool of beautiful fountains. Quotations from war leaders are also engraved on either side.

The memorial was not created without controversy. Critics said it was too big or too traditional, and many feared it would be an intrusion on the clean view line that runs in a straight line from the two presidential memorials beyond to the Capitol. But if you were to sit on Honest Abe's lap in that magnificent statuary and look east, all you would see of the new one are four or five of the columns on either side of the reflecting pool.

On a recent afternoon, spotting World War II vets was not difficult. Many wore old military caps, and others' ages gave them away.

Dr. Richard Robinson, 81, of New Freedom, Pa., took part in the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day in 1944, and that winter in the Battle of the Bulge, both events specifically honored here in stone.

Juan Cruz, 85, a Guam native now living in Leesburg, Va., joined the Navy in 1939 and was a steward aboard a heavy cruiser heading for Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese attack. His wife, Matilde, 82, was a Japanese prisoner in the Philippines for four years during the war.

John Gallagher, 78, of Baltimore, who was a Navy armed guard on Liberty ships carrying troops to Europe, said he had contributed $35 to the memorial. While his son was taking his picture before the Maryland panel, he said, "A man came up to me and asked me if I was in World War II. I said `Yes,' and he said, `Thank you.' He shook my hand. He was a young man, about 32. I thought that was nice enough. I never expected it. It sort of got me."

The vets spoke freely about the war in Iraq and the prisoner abuse scandal.

Dr. Robinson labeled the war "a shame," saying he thought now the United States probably should not have gone, "although I thought so at the time." He said the prisoner abuse story was "very bad," but still supported the president, and said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumseld is "too good to resign."

Mr. Gallagher recalled that later in World War II, he was reassigned to "marching German prisoners back and forth to the chow hall" at an Army base in Virginia. "There's probably nothing new under the sun," he said, "but when I marched prisoners, we treated them right. They were beautiful marchers; I had no trouble."

On this day, though, these veterans' thoughts were on past war memories rather than on present war concerns.

Of the memorial, Mr. Gallagher said: "It was a long time coming. If it wasn't for Sen. [Bob] Dole [a decorated combat veteran], I guess we wouldn't even have it.

"I was wondering," he said now, laughing, "`How long am I gonna live before I see one?'"

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Columnist Ellen Goodman is on vacation.

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