For Vets, a Monumental Day

Posted April 27, 2004 at 6:59pm

They enter triumphantly through the enormous granite arch representing victory in the Pacific theater — the Members of Congress, led by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who served their country in World War II.

Their hair may be whiter, and their faces chiseled with lines, but there is still an undeniable proudness to their gait as they stride into the soon-to-be unveiled National World War II Memorial.

And with good reason. There are but 12 World War II veterans in Congress, 10 of whom responded to Dole’s invitation to tour the memorial Tuesday before it opens to the public later this week.

They walk forward in a pack at first, with a clearly pleased Dole — who co-chaired the effort to raise through public and private funds more than $190 million for the memorial — pointing here and there. The sun shines brightly, the wind sends up errant wisps of mostly silvery-gray hairs. They head toward the pillars representing American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii and the District of Columbia.

But first things first.

Standing in a tight semicircle around the two chambers’ spiritual leaders, they listen first as Senate Chaplain Barry Black offers a few remarks, and then, heads bowed, as House Chaplain Daniel Coughlin offers a prayer of blessing for the monument and all that it represents.

That task accomplished, a project executive, Barry Owenby, begins to ply the assembled Members with monument-related facts.

Up go cries of “hey, hey, hey” and wide smiles, when Sen. Fritz Hollings (D) learns that the Kershaw granite used in much of the memorial’s vertical elements is quarried in his home state of South Carolina.

When one visitor jokes that the small waterfalls on the Memorial’s west wall reminds him of Niagara Falls, Dole doesn’t miss a beat.

“Viagra falls or Niagara Falls?” asks the celebrated spokesman for erectile dysfunction. It elicits a round of hearty chuckles.

It isn’t long before a clutch of reporters engulfs the Members on hand, but Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), whose ill health forces him to remain in a red golf cart, sits alone just beyond the crush of bodies, staring stoically.

“I am overwhelmed by the majesty of the memorial,” says Hyde, a man whose Navy crew endured several days of sustained air attack during the invasion of the Philippine Island of Luzon in January 1945. “It lives up to its high mission.”

He starts to recount the day a typhoon hit — not unlike the conditions depicted in the film “The Perfect Storm,” he says. At the time, Hyde was in the middle of the South China Sea sent by his commander to help unload a ship that had run aground off the coastline. But somewhere in the middle of the story, Dole makes a beeline for Hyde, directing him toward the memorial’s western portion — where a wall of 4,000 gold stars represents the 400,000 members of the “Greatest Generation” who lost their lives in the war.

With a quick u-turn, Hyde drives off.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who lost his right arm on the battlefields of Italy, walks shoulder to shoulder with his best friend, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). They tread slowly, so as not to disturb the invisible cord that connects the two comrades in arms. Inouye is wearing sunglasses and a dark gray suit, one sleeve flapping faintly in the breeze. A dozen feet or so away from Inouye’s Aloha State pillar, the two pause to take stock.

“They separated us,” says a somewhat forlorn Inouye, noting the distance between the Alaska and Hawaii pillars. “That’s not nice.”

That minor quibble aside, Stevens dubs the memorial “a wonderful tribute to those people who didn’t come back,” and praises Dole for his efforts to raise funds for it.

“We just helped Bob as much as we could,” says Stevens, who flew support missions for the Flying Tigers in the China-Burma-India theater.

Asked to describe his worst moment of the war, Stevens looks down, suddenly subdued.

“I never thought of it that way,” he says. “We never thought about one moment being worse than another.” There was a job to do, after all, he says.

And with that, the two war heroes, fellow Senators and self-described “co-chairmen” head toward the southern exit.

Near the central pool, Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) — who was just 16 when he enlisted in the Naval Air Corps — is contemplating his colleagues’ dwindling ranks. “Three of [us] are quitting,” says the 77-year-old Ballenger, who will not seek re-election in 2004. For now, the 109th Congress looks likely to include just nine WWII veterans.

Ballenger, who was still in training when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war, says he was glad to see a memorial to WWII finally taking its place alongside those for subsequent conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. For too long, Ballenger says, too little attention has been devoted to the accomplishments of his fellow veterans.

“We’d just gotten through saving the world,” he says. “[But] most of us just wanted to go back and go to college.”

Nearby, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who was a teenage Navy trainee when the war ended, tweaks Hollings as the South Carolinian strides by. “I looked up to all these older guys,” Warner says.

Hollings fires back that Warner “roomed with Strom Thurmond.”

Hollings recalls his service as an Army officer who arrived in Fussen, Austria, on the fateful day of May 8, 1945: V-E Day. “Oh good gosh, that was wonderful,” he drawls.

Still, even a mind as quick as Hollings’ isn’t immune to the ravages of age.

“I don’t know what damn division it was,” he asserts. “I can’t tell you what the number of the outfit was.”

Just then, CNN’s Judy Woodruff arrives, an entrance that momentarily distracts the remaining Members as they cluster near the perfectly coiffed news anchor to await interviews and still more photos.

In the midst of the commotion, Warner — who skipped out on an Armed Services Committee hearing he was chairing to be present at the memorial tour — heads off with an official photographer to search for the Old Dominion pillar.

A cloud briefly dims the sun’s light. Warner takes off his sunglasses. He folds his hands, as he looks out over the memorial’s expansive, elliptical floor of granite and water.

“[I feel] just awesome,” he beams. “Quietly awesome. Serenely awesome.”