WASHINGTON, April 29, 2004 — -- A memorial honoring the veterans of World War II finally opened to the public today. Its formal dedication will take place next month, but there had been a rush to open it since veterans are dying at a rate of 1,056 a day.
The memorial honors the 16 million U.S. men and women who served during the war. There are fewer than 4 million veterans alive today, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As soon as the barriers came down, hundreds of tourists rushed in to see the new monument.
Two decades and $174 million in the making, the monument built of granite and bronze features waterfalls, fountains, and a curved wall bedecked with gold stars to represent the more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives in the war. A group of five award-winning architects led the memorial's design team.
Retired Marine Capt. Jack Lucas, 76, wishes it had opened sooner so more veterans could have seen it.
Lucas joined the Marines after forging his mother's signature on enlistment papers and lying about his age. At 14, he became the youngest soldier since the Civil War to receive the Medal of Honor.
Three years later, he hit the beach at Iwo Jima.
Once, during his tour of duty, Lucas's gun jammed as his unit was trapped in a trench while battling heavy gunfire.
"When I looked down to unjam my gun, I saw the grenades and hollered 'Grenade!' " he said.
Lucas threw himself onto two Japanese grenades. One was a dud. The other exploded.
"I have six pieces in my lung and eight pieces that went up in my helmet and ricocheted down in my brain," he said.
For his split-second action that saved the lives of his three comrades, President Harry Truman gave Lucas the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award.
Lucas recalled: "At that moment, [Truman] said, 'I'd rather have this medal then be president of the United States,' and I said, 'Sir, I'll swap you.' "
There are 464 World War II Medal of Honor recipients, but only 50 of them are still alive. More than half plan to be at the new monument on Memorial Day weekend, when it is formally dedicated.
Retired Army Sgt. Walter Ehlers, 83, plans to be in attendance.
He and his brother, Roland, were in the first wave to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day.Walter survived. His brother did not.
Walter Ehlers later received the Medal of Honor for drawing German gunfire on himself to give his platoon cover to withdraw.
"Because we knew you don't just turn your back on the enemy and run," he said."We wanted to be sure somebody got back, and that was my job."
The Medal of Honor recipients will have special seats at the dedication, although they say they are no more special than the men who fought alongside them.
Like Lucas, they only wish more of their fellow soldiers were still alive to see a monument dedicated to all who nobly served.