As the U.S. Navy band belted out the final notes of the national anthem May 29, eyes turned skyward to watch jets thunder overhead during the World War II Memorial dedication.
On Memorial Day Weekend, organizers officially opened the latest addition to the National Mall – a bronze and granite tribute to the men and women who made sacrifices for their country in battle and on the home front during World War II.
“It is a fitting tribute – open and expansive like America, great and enduring like the achievements we honor,” President George W. Bush said at the ceremony. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush were also among the more than 110,000 people who assembled on the Mall.
The dedication ceremony was the highlight of a four-day, weekend-long festival that offered visitors a chance to step back into another era. For the younger crowd, the weekend provided a glance at a 1940s lifestyle. For veterans, it was a chance to remember the turbulent times.
Pre-show entertainment on May 29 included everything from big band performances to swing dance lessons. The National Cathedral also held an interfaith service that morning to remember those who died in the war.
Actor Tom Hanks, star of the World War II movie “Saving Private Ryan” and executive producer of the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” spoke at the event. He served as the memorial campaign’s national spokesman and helped lead the effort to raise $200 million in contributions to fund the 17-year project.
“Time demands that more than the fallen be remembered,” Hanks said. “All those who chose to serve any way they could – their lives were disrupted. Every day they asked themselves, ‘What can I do?’ And every day they answered that question for themselves.”
Other speakers echoed Hanks’ sentiments, broadening the dedication of the memorial to include more than the lives claimed in direct conflict.
“Not every warrior wore a uniform,” said former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kans.), a Purple Heart recipient and national chairman of the fundraising campaign.
NBC News anchor and “Greatest Generation” author Tom Brokaw praised the Americans of the era, noting not only their military service but also their efforts in rebuilding a war-shattered country.
“The tensile strength of this generation came from the ordinary men and women who came to meet the needs of their country and community without expectation of reward,” Brokaw said.
Some attendees saw Rosie the Riveter strolling the grounds throughout the day – Loretta Cooper, director of development at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, dressed as the 1940s icon. Cooper wore the same trademark bandana and blue collar as Rosie, a publicity character designed to encourage women to contribute to the war effort by working in factories.
She said her costume had an unexpectedly strong effect on the veterans.
“It lets down a barrier,” Cooper said. “They’re not talking to me, they’re talking to Rosie.” She said she found herself in tears as veterans and civilian supporters of the war related their moving stories to Rosie’s familiar face.
For some veterans and their families, the day was a bittersweet celebration. Visitors covered row after row of bulletin boards in a tent with slips of paper containing their contact information in an effort to contact wartime comrades and lost friends and family.
Gregory Cavanaugh took a unique approach in trying to find friends of his late father, donning a sandwich-board sign advertising his father’s rank and regiment.
“I’d like to meet one person who knew him,” Cavanaugh said.
At the time of the dedication ceremony, he said he had been searching for several hours with no luck but was determined to keep trying.
Volunteers toted notebooks, recorders and video equipment throughout the festival to capture veterans’ stories as part of the Veterans History Project. The project is collecting first-hand accounts of all American wars since World War I. The team on the Mall conducted hundreds of on-site interviews with veterans such as Dale Vance, who visited D.C. from Oklahoma.
“It’s been a long time coming … a very long time,” Vance said.
Now 79, Vance enlisted in the Navy at age 18 and saw combat in the South Pacific. He chose to go as a “selected volunteer” to avoid the draft and choose the branch of the military he wanted to enter. He recounted some of his most memorable encounters for the Veterans History Project.
On one occasion, Vance found himself aboard one of three ships escorting President Roosevelt to a conference. Roosevelt was riding on the U.S.S. Iowa. Her sister ship, the Porter, decided to make a dummy run on the Iowa, meaning it would “fire” an imaginary missile at the target. Unfortunately, the Porter had accidentally fired a real missile. The Iowa quickly turned as the missile exploded in its wake. Vance said Roosevelt came wheeling out on deck as fast as his chair could carry him.
“He wanted to see the action,” Vance said. “He wanted to see what was going on.”
Luckily for the crew members, Vance said, Roosevelt realized the situation was an accident and pardoned everyone involved.