May 29 was a good day to remember — a perfect sunny day in Washington. Hundreds of thousands of Americans joined three presidents and countless dignitaries on the National Mall to dedicate a long-awaited memorial to the men and women who fought and won World War II, whose sacrifice and service saved the world. Sixteen million Americans served in WW II, but with 1,100 of them dying each day, before long no one alive will remember it first hand.
American Progress Senior Fellow John Moyers spent the day talking to veterans and those who came to honor them. He found pride and patriotism everywhere, but with it, concern for the nation’s new war in Iraq.
Below are photos and thoughts from the WW II memorial dedication:
Lou Dellaporte from Brooklyn, now and then — in a photo with his brothers taken on Nov. 27, 1945 (he’s on the right). On D-Day, his Army combat engineering unit landed on Utah beach. The war in Iraq shows that the United States "won’t take any shit from no one," he says. "I’m proud of our president and glad he’s doing what he’s doing and most of the people I know feel the same way. It’s just a lot of these liberals — I’d like to ring their necks. Let’s see them come out in uniform and fight…. We are on the right path…. I know how those young boys and girls feel over there. They’re doing it because they’re Americans."
It’s hard to get hundreds of thousands of people to stand quietly together. But when a lone trumpeter blew taps, everyone stilled. The familiar, somber refrain echoed up and down the National Mall, amplified, it seemed, by reflection off the proud hard stone of our national monuments and great institutions.
Joshua Guiles, 12, and Zachariah Taylor, 14, came to D.c= with 45 other members of the Temecula Valley Young Marines. The Navy flew them and their adult leaders from Camp Pendleton, California, for the weekend. Joshua wants to be a police officer, and Zachariah said his mom hopes he will join the military after high school.
The Young Marines is the official youth organization of the Marine Corps and claims 10,000 members, eight to 18 years old, in 46 states. Members attend a boot camp for physical conditioning, they perform community service projects, and they are expected to maintain high academic standards.
"What we’re doing over there in Iraq is beyond me," John O’Neill said before a questioner could even finish asking his opinion of the situation. "I don’t know why we’re there…. I just sent George Bush a letter and said get out of there before you lose another 500 Marines."
As commander of his American Legion post in South Carolina, O’Neill raised $25,000 to help build the WW II memorial.
O’Neill fought with the 1st Marine Division in many of the Pacific campaign’s toughest battles, including Bougainville and Tarawa. At Bloody Ridge on Guadalcanal, he earned a Silver Star, awarded for heroism in combat, the third-highest honor a soldier can earn.
Two Marines, generations apart, met and found something in common.
Lance Corporal Ason Tulensru, 21, a Marine for 16 months, is from the Pacific island nation of Micronesia. When he saw the medals worn by John O’Neill, he respectfully asked to have his picture taken with the highly decorated veteran.
It turned out O’Neill fought in Micronesia with the 1st Marine Division in many of the toughest battles of the Pacific campaign, a list that brought him to tears as he recounted it. He was wounded repeatedly. At Bloody Ridge on Guadalcanal, he earned the Silver Star, the third-highest award a soldier can earn, given in recognition of heroism in combat.
"It is an honor, sir, to meet you," the young Marine said to the veteran. "Thank you for your service."
Someone watching said, "You don’t meet many Silver Star winners." O’Neill replied, "Many of us never made it home to collect our medals."
Helen Bailey grew up on a farm in Minnesota. She was a pharmacists mate in the Navy medical corps from 1943 though 1945. "Basically, I was a nurse. … I served between Hunter College in New York, San Diego, California, and Washington, Dc= … They put me in charge of 500 WAVES. I was on 24-hour call, and any time anyone was sick, I had to check them out."
She says her fellow veterans in Camden, NJ, are divided over the war in Iraq, as are people across her community. "I think they’re feeling unsure. I see it with the political people, I feel it with the neighbors, and I see it in the students."
Asked if she thinks, as President Bush does, that we ought not to change horses in midstream, she said, "No, I don’t really agree with that. He’s determined to stay with that June 30 date, but I think it’s going to take longer than that. I think we should be a little more flexible than that."
Arthur Kermit Hancock of Baltimore (left) fought in Italy with the Army’s 92nd Infantry Division — the famous "Buffalo Soldiers" who distinguished themselves in combat (and the only black Army troops to see combat in Europe). George Jordan, Jr., of Georgia, served all over Europe with the 499th Transport Company, serving the 1st, 3rd and 9th armies.
Hancock and Jordan had never met before May 29, but they shared a common memory, as summarized by Mr. Jordan: "The people over there [in Europe], they called us Black Yankees … and we went anywhere we wanted, sat anywhere we wanted, and ate anywhere we wanted as long as we was over there. But when we came back home, we couldn’t do that in America…. That’s why we went for the civil rights movement when we got back. It certainly had to be done."
Lance Corporal Ason Tulensru, 21, of Micronesia, and Corporal Eric Tovar, 21, of Dallas, Texas, are vehicle operators at the School of Infantry, Camp Pendleton, California. This was the first visit to Washington for both — "It is awesome!" Tulensru said, with Tovar nodding and smiling in agreement. Neither has been to Iraq yet, but they think soon they are likely to go, a thought they clearly do not relish. "But if that’s our orders, we’re ready and we’ll go," Tulensru said.
In 1944 and 1945, Vicente T. Moreno served in France and Germany with the 42nd Infantry, 1st Battalion, Company B, 232 Regiment. Asked to compare WW II with the current war in Iraq, he said, "The only people sacrificing right now are the soldiers and the people who have sons and daughters over there. The rest of us, we’re living the great life. We’re not suffering, not like WW II."
Back home in Anthony, New Mexico, the people he talks to about the Iraq War, including some of his fellow vets, "don’t think much of this war. They don’t talk so good about it."
Nestor Ramirez, Sr. was serving in a Puerto Rican National Guard unit when he was called up into the U.S. Army in 1940. He served as a sargeant in the all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment in WW II, remained in occupied Europe, and then fought in Korea. His son, Col. Nestor Ramirez, Jr. (Ret.) was an attorney in the Judge Advocate General service. "I had it easy. I served behind a desk for my whole career," he said. "My father, he fought in two wars, two of the difficult ones."
Husband and wife Lynn Drake and Bill Ascani came to represent their fathers, who could not attend. Ascani’s father turned 87 on this day. He was a West Point graduate who spent 35 years in the Air Force. After the war, he became a test pilot, and in 1951 gained the world speed record in an F-86, one of the earliest jet fighters. He retired as a two-star general.
Asconi said the dedication of the WW II memorial has had a huge impact on the veterans. "I feel like all of them here today look younger than they ever have before," he said.
"WW II was such a different experience than all the wars that came after because of the sacrifice that everybody in the entire country made," Drake said. "It was just a huge united effort." She and her mother both protested the Vietnam War. Her father didn’t march against that war, but "I don’t think he was totally crazy about it. And right now, my family feels that the situation in Iraq is very frightening."
She hasn’t had the urge to march now, she says, because "the situation is still unfolding. I think it’s too soon. And I actually think it’s too soon to pull out…. We need to work with other nations to find a solution. It needs to be a joint effort."
George McCurdy, 82, and Lesley McCurdy, 72, are two of seven brothers, five of whom served in either WW II or Korea. George served in Asia as an engineer, mostly in Burma, and won two Bronze Stars. He said of the Iraq war, "I don’t think much of this war. I can’t figure out why we’re there in the first place."
"World War II and Korea, we had an objective," said Lesley, a veteran of Korea who is commander of American Legion Post 197 in Bainbridge, PA. "Vietnam was pretty much different — no objective. Iraq seems pretty much the same as Vietnam — no objective."
Commander Laura Shay of the U.S. Public Health Service, a physician, staffed a first aid station during the ceremonies. "We cannot imagine what they went through," she said of Americans in battle and on the home front during WW II. "But the nation was united then and that helped us win the war." In comparing that time to our own, she noted that the nation seems very polarized now. "The one time I really think we felt united was immediately after 9/11," she said. "It’s really sad now that we haven’t been able to maintain that."