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A day to celebrate the living, mourn the lost

At the dedication of the World War II memorial in Washington, aging veterans searched for their old friends and tried to make new ones.
NY Veterans Watch WWII Memorial Dedication Via Satellite
World War II veteran David Slater stands at attention in New York during the national anthem at a telecast of the dedication of the World War II memorial in Washington.Chris Hondros / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

From Huntingdon Valley, Pa., William E. Snow came with his wheelchair and his memories of Pearl Harbor. Herman Walton, once an Army truck mechanic near the front line in Germany, flew north from Columbus, Ga.

Marjory Doezel, who helped save the wounded in Europe, arrived in full dress uniform from Upstate New York. And Gene Mead, another former Navy man, brought his electric scooter all the way from a Chicago suburb.

On a Mall awash in patriotism yesterday, they again shared, perhaps for the very last time, a common mission and purpose.

They were there to be recognized, of course, for their service during that awful time more than 60 years ago when the world seemed on the verge of collapse. Most long had wondered whether this tribute would ever take place.

"They honored the Korean vets. They honored the Vietnam vets. They honored everyone else," Mead said. "I thought we deserved something."

But something more than glory brought him and the thousands of others to Washington. Something akin to responsibility, a sense that they should be present to bear witness for those no longer living or able.

"The good master has been good to us to bring us all together," said the 82-year-old Walton, sitting alone on a chair in the middle of the great sweep of the Mall, a small American flag in one hand. He was missing one buddy in particular, R.B. Knotts, who grew up in the same Texas town and worked alongside him in the 767 Engineer Dump Truck Co. Knotts died in 1997.

"So many friends have gone on before," Walton said. "I'm sorry they didn't live long enough to see this."

‘We were like one big family’
Under a peerless blue sky, the dedication of the National World War II Memorial was also, as billed, a reunion, with many men and women searching the crowds for a familiar face. Or, at the least, a familiar insignia on a hat, vest, jacket.

Wesley D. Moore of Center Ossipee, N.H., wore the "Hells Bells" cap of his Army Air Forces fighter squadron for that very reason and parked himself prominently on a Mall bench just east of Seventh Street NW.

"I came to look for guys I haven't seen in 65 years," he said, not since the 316th fought through the sandstorms of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, in the skies over Italy, France and Germany. Moore knows few of these buddies may be left; just since June, four of the 11 men at his squadron's last gathering have passed on.

Did he come to the Mall for them? "Absolutely," he declared. "We were like one big family. We lived together 24 hours a day. We played together, fought together, ate, worked together."

Yet with the best of that era's big-band music entertaining block after block -- huge screens showed dancers swinging on stage as "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and "In the Mood" wafted through the air -- the hours preceding the actual dedication ceremony took on a magical, vintage aura.

It was not just that strangers were spontaneously coming up to the veterans, offering a handshake and a heartfelt thank-you, taking their pictures, asking for autographs.

"I was hugged by three or four women," Frederick Choromanski of Fairfield, Conn., said in slight amazement.

Choromanski, who served with the 43rd Army Infantry Division, was an understandable attraction, his uniform decorated with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and numerous other medallions and distinctions from his service in the Pacific. In Saipan, the Japanese "almost blew my left arm off." He spent nearly all of the following three years in a hospital recovering.

"He said, 'If I live to this time, we're coming,' " his wife, Evelyn, offered as the couple walked through the crowds.

"There are a lot of memories," her husband, now 85, acknowledged. "Everything is very touching."

Repeatedly, emotions were evoked, often for small moments these men and women never anticipated. Jim Halliburton, an Army veteran from Carmel, Ind., choked up all over again as he recalled what had happened the day before while he and two other members of VFW 10003 played tourist at a museum.

Out of nowhere, an entire class of students came up to them and shook their hands.

"That was the nicest thing that ever happened in my life," said Halliburton, 79. "I had a hard time keeping the tears down."

And sitting in the front row of one section of seats, Marjory Doezel tried repeatedly to explain, without crying, why she had traveled to Washington. Why she had arrived shortly after 10 a.m. yesterday, not minding an hours-long wait. Why the memorial felt so important to her.

She could not.

She talked first about the seven years she worked as an Army nurse in Iceland, England and France. "We were the first unit to go overseas," even before Pearl Harbor, she said. The Battle of the Bulge found her at the 178th General Hospital in France, where the wounded who had survived field triage were sent for "the long stays."

Doezel made a career of the Army, met her husband in the Army, buried him at Arlington. At 88, she is looking back on a full sweep of life.

"It was just the personal sacrifice that we made," she said in one attempt at explaining.

"Just to see it, it's just all these years," she said in another try.

And finally:

"I'm still here," she said softly. "So many have died."