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WWII veterans honored at memorial dedication

Thousands gather on Washington's National Mall

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Thousands gather to pay tribute to those who served in WWII.

Security was tight for the dedication of the memorial.

The World War II Memorial started with one man's question.
World War II
Memorial Day

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thousands of people gathered on Washington's National Mall on Saturday to pay tribute to the millions of Americans who served during World War II in the military and on the home front.

More than 140, 000 people -- including thousands of veterans of the war --attended the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, capping a weekend of celebrations in Washington.

In dedicating the memorial, President Bush described it as "open and expansive, like America; grand and enduring, like the achievements we honor."

"Here in the company of the generation that won the war, I proudly accept the World War II Memorial on behalf of the people of the United States of America," Bush said.

The memorial honors the 16 million Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II, the millions who helped the war effort at home and the 405,399 men and women killed in the fight against Germany, Italy and Japan.

Noting that World War II marked a "hard, heroic and gallant time in the life of our country," Bush paid tribute to "the greatest generation" of Americans who when it mattered most "showed the finest qualities of our nation and of humanity."

"To fight and win on two fronts, Americans had to work and save and ration and sacrifice as never before," Bush said.

Sharing the stage with Bush were his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Clinton. Also on hand were actor Tom Hanks, who was influential in raising money to build the memorial, and NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, author of "The Greatest Generation," a book of war memoirs.

"Time demands that more than the fallen be remembered in this place of national honor," Hanks said. "Let us remember not just those that lost their lives in the war but all Americans who were alive, conscientious and who chose to serve as best they could in the years from 1941 to 1945."

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole -- one of the key war veterans who pushed the privately funded project -- likewise took part in the ceremony and recounted his experiences during the war. The Kansas Republican and 1996 presidential nominee helped raise money for the $174 million project.

Dole -- who was badly wounded in 1945 while leading an assault on a German machine gun nest in northern Italy's Po Valley -- used his political experience to shepherd legislation through Congress to construct the memorial.

Of those veterans who died before seeing the monument dedicated, Dole said they "won every battle, except the battle against time."

Indeed, Dole captured the mood of the dedication when he said: "We have kept faith with our comrades from a distant youth."

Dole also sprinkled his remarks with humor: "As it happens, today is the 101st birthday of Bob Hope, the GIs' favorite entertainer that did more to boost our morale -- next to Betty Grable." Hope died in 2003.

In a speech earlier in the day at the National Cathedral, the elder Bush labeled World War II veterans "one great generation of American patriots."

One of those was Bush himself, who was the youngest U.S. Navy pilot when he received his wings in 1943 and flew 58 combat missions as a carrier-based aviator in the Pacific.

He was shot down by Japanese antiaircraft fire on a mission over the South China Sea in a torpedo bomber in 1944. He was rescued by an American submarine and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action.

The former president called attention to the sacrifices of "the people, places and events that forever changed the course of history and turned back a rising tide of tyranny" during the 1930s and 1940s "when the fate of the world hung in the balance."

He also praised the current generation of the U.S. military, saying their sacrifices were just as great.

'Here we mark the price of freedom'

"I didn't think I was going to live long enough to see it," former Navy radio operator Robert Collins said, admiring the monument from his wheelchair with his daughter and grandson. "I had a heart attack about a month ago, but I got here."

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 1,056 veterans of the war are dying each day.

Twenty-four people required medical aid during the dedication, said an emergency medical service spokesman. Fifteen of them were taken to the hospital, including two cases of cardiac arrest. None of the cases were considered serious.

The 7.4-acre monument, which was authorized by Congress in 1993, opened to the public on April 29.

An arching Freedom Wall has 4,000 stars representing the 400,000 Americans who died in the war.

On stone in front of the wall are the words, engraved in capital letters: "Here we mark the price of freedom."

Two 43-foot tall arches stand at either end of the memorial, representing the Pacific and Atlantic war theaters.

Fifty-six 17-foot granite pillars -- representing U.S. territories and states at the time and the District of Columbia -- encircle the Rainbow Pool and plaza. At night, lights mounted in the pillars glow.(Veteran: 'I am awestruck)

Security was extremely tight for the event and more than 35 federal, state and local agencies were involved in planning for the event, which began a year ago.

Some 1,000 law enforcement officers were scheduled to be on hand, in addition to special support and response teams. The U.S. Park Police led the security effort. (Unprecedented security for event)

On Wednesday, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security warned that intelligence reports indicated that al Qaeda was possibly planning to attack the United States in the coming months. (Full story)

Attorney General John Ashcroft listed the dedication ceremony as one of the events that could be an attractive target for terrorists. (Full story)

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