May 29, 2004: The Final Muster
The build-up has been massive; week after week we’ve been bombarded with stories and rumors, but now at long last it’s the big day.
No, not the invasion of Normandy – the dedication of the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Thousands of veterans are converging on the Mall to mark an occasion that has been a long time coming. As long-time Washington area residents, we’ve seen one monument after another go up on the mall: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, The Korean War Memorial, The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
For 17 years, plans for a World War II memorial were mired in bureaucratic wrangling. It took a cadre of dedicated advocates and some Hollywood clout – Tom Hanks throwing his Saving Private Ryan weight behind it – to cut through the red tape and give the project the green light.
Oh sure, there have been any number of nay-sayers and critics. Columnist Jonathan Yardley derided the monument as "ghastly," while architects, art critics and civic planners have bemoaned the "sterility" and "cold formality" of the seven-acre monument.
But on the morning of the dedication, I step outside to retrieve the newspaper and minutes later decide to go to the dedication. I’ve read something that prompts me to go: while 16.4 million Americans served in WWII, there are fewer than five million who remain alive, and they are dying at the rate of over a thousand vets a day. This will probably be the last time they gather in any significant number.
It’s an absolutely gorgeous spring day, atypically cool and without a hint of humidity. Normally, I shun the Mall from Cherry Blossom Festival time to October, until the crowds thin and the weather cools. But today is different; there’s something in the air, an aura of expectation and buoyancy.
I have seen the battlefields of Normandy. Now it is time to meet the men who fought there.
A Most Unusual Metro Ride
I get my first inkling that something big is happening when I pull into the Metro parking lot in Rockville. Normally on a weekend this vast parking complex is deserted, but today it looks nearly as full as on a weekday. I’m lucky to find a spot.
The station is thronged with out-of-towners trying to make sense of the finicky fare card machines. "Press this button here," I tell a panicked-looking woman who has inserted her money and now stands helplessly gazing at the confusing mass of instructions. She thanks me, moves to the turnstile, and inserts her ticket the wrong direction. I smile to myself, remembering that a few weeks earlier I had been the out-of-towner in New York, invariably inserting my fare card incorrectly. "The other way," I tell her, and the turnstile swings open.
The Metro car is full of couples and families, many clustered around a central figure wearing a uniform or VFW cap. Some are in wheel chairs, others carry canes, while a few sit ramrod straight in their orange upholstered seats, eyes front. There are Vietnam vets, Korean vets, and Desert Storm vets, but above all Word War II vets. I sit in front of two men, one elderly and the other roughly my age. The younger man leans forward and asks how long it takes to get downtown. We strike up a conversation.
The older man was at Pearl Harbor, the younger in Vietnam. When another man hears "Pearl Harbor," he joins in the conversation. Then another. And another. All throughout the car, strangers are suddenly talking, laughing, shaking hands, and joking with one other.
In my purse, I’m carrying pocket packages of Kleenex. I thought they might come in handy.
On the Metro, I realize this won’t be the solemn occasion I’d expected.
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times
One of the first people I meet on the Mall hails from Curtis, Ohio. "My family’s from Ohio," I tell him, and we begin a long, rambling Ohio-style conversation. Turns out he’s brought a buddy from Curtis to Washington to attend the dedication ceremonies. "Come on over here and I’ll introduce you to him, " he says.
"Smokes" fought under General Patton in Europe and is full of stories. "Yeah, old 'Blood and Guts' Patton," he reminisces. "Our blood and his guts!" We all laugh at the old saw, though in Smokes’ case it’s more than a joke. He’s still got a bullet in him somewhere, "But it didn’t kill me then, so I don’t think it’s gonna now." Smokes is an electrician. "Where were you when I couldn’t find anybody to rewire my old house?" I ask him. His buddy chimes in, "You shoulda had Smokes! He did my son’s place for just the cost of materials and a few beers. Started early every morning and worked till ten at night!" He shakes his head, admiringly, "That’s Smokes for you."
Over at the "Arsenal," a crowd is gathered round a Sherman tank . A bear of a man in khaki is explaining the tank’s features, but he stops when he spots a vet with an 82nd Airborne patch on his uniform. "Come on up, sir," he says, and the crowd parts. Just then a woman races up to the vet. "Dad, you won’t believe this! Look who’s here!" She points to the young man beside her. "It’s Bob’s grandson!"
The WWII vet looks momentarily confused, then a smile spreads across his face as he turns to the young man and puts his arm around him. It’s clear that "Bob" didn’t make it here today, but that this, to the vet, is the next best thing.
Throughout the crowd, I spot people carrying photos of WWII vets or wearing T-shirts or pins emblazoned with the image of one. An extended family, all in identical T-shirts printed with a fresh-faced soldier’s face on them, proudly push the older version of the soldier along the gravel path of the mall. A young man wears his grandfather’s uniform. "He couldn’t be here, but, boy, he sure would’ve liked this," he muses.
Behind the vast Reunion Tent, the equipment buffs are admiring a row of vintage army jeeps. One stands out: splattered with mud, loaded with duffel bags and boxes, with Chianti jugs strapped to the side. Inside, there’s a crate labeled ‘PROPHYLACTICS’, Hershey bars, a pair of silk stockings, a garter belt, "Yank" magazines, and muddy boots. On the hood in a cage, a stuffed hen wearing a miniature helmet presides over a clutch of Army-green eggs. A captured Nazi flag is mounted on the front bumper.
"Doc," the jeep’s owner, put together the display as a tribute to his WWII days in Italy. I ask him about the mud. "Oh, it was muddy," he says. "It rained and rained." Although the mud on the jeep isn’t original, that certainly isn’t true of Doc’s purple heart, irreverently fastened to the front of the chicken’s cage.
Granite, Marble, and Gilt
All along the Mall, huge video screens have been placed before several vast seating areas. At 1:30 sharp, the dedication begins. Tom Brokaw gives a speech, culled from his book, The Greatest Generation, followed by Tom Hanks narrating a piece about the new memorial. Then a great whoop goes up when Bob Dole, one of ‘the boys’ to this crowd, gives his speech. Finally, all rise for the Commander in Chief. Bush receives a restrained reception compared to Dole. Some vets, I notice, stand respectfully but don’t applaud.
When the dedication ceremony is over, I make my way down the Mall toward the Memorial. This area had been open during the ceremony only to those with tickets available only to dignitaries, vets, and their families. It’s a long walk, past the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial, moving against a huge crowd. Normally, this sort of slow-moving assembly makes me impatient, but the presence of the vets and their families puts it into perspective. They’ve waited a long time for this. Surely I can wait a bit, too.
Down by the memorial, I meet Ed Matz, who enlisted when he was "seventeen years old and a day" and went around the world on a light cruiser "from Boston to San Francisco." We talk for several hours in the shade of the Memorial’s granite columns, watching the crowds go by. A young woman asks Ed to sign a copy of Brokaw’s book. Another vet and his wife stop and join the conversation for a bit. Groups of people come and go, everyone talking unselfconsciously, openly. We’re all Americans, after all. Especially today.
As the sun starts to set, Ed says, "I’m hungry. Wanna go get something to eat?"
I think to myself, ‘Now’s my chance.’
But Ed’s an old hand, and he beats me to it when it comes time to pick up the check.