General John W. Vessey, U.S. Army (Retired)
National WWII Memorial Dedication
Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving
May 29, 2004
What a beautiful day and beautiful setting in which to say thanks to those who served the nation during World War II, and to say a special thanks to those who've made the nation's new monument to that service a reality – the American Battle Monuments Commission chaired by General Kelley, and all the diligent supporters, led by Senator Dole. Thank you!
Three magnificent monuments have long beautified our Capitol City and reminded us of great events and great men which shaped our nation in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The Jefferson and Washington monuments remind us of the 18th Century's bold, daring Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War to gain our freedom, and the work of the founding fathers to form a nation state and give us a Constitution guaranteeing the rights and freedoms our citizens enjoy and which are the envy of most of the world. The Lincoln Memorial reminds us of the 19th Century's great trial for this National and the man who led us when we struggled to affirm that we are One Nation, and that our Declaration of Independence was true and that all men are truly "…created equal with certain unalienable rights…"
Today we'll dedicate a monument to America's 20th Century efforts in World War II, an event which, too, shaped our nation, but which also, both literally and figuratively took the whole world apart and put it together again in a different form.
This new monument is not to glorify war, but rather to recognize the defining event of the 20th Century, and the overwhelming effort of the American people and their Armed Forces. Over 12 percent of the population served in the Armed Forces in contrast to about 1 percent serving today. While most able-bodied 18-35 year-old males, the traditional heart of the farm and factory work force, were in the Armed Forces, American industry, with a huge influx of new workers, most of whom were women, was engaged in an enormous effort to arm us and our allies. Many shipyards were launching a new ship each week. Aircraft factories were producing nearly 100,000 airplanes a year. Countless tanks, trucks, and cannons rolled off assembly lines operating 24 hours per day. Our farms were feeding us and our allies. Fifty percent of our economy was going to the war effort! Nearly everyone was involved either fighting, supporting the fighters, or supporting those supporting the fighters. One million Americans were casualties; over 400,000 died. As President Roosevelt said in one of his early, post-Pearl Harbor, radio addresses to the Nation, "We are now in this war. We are all in it. All the way. Every single man, woman, and child is a partner in this most tremendous undertaking in our American History!"
We were led by giants, giants in the White House, giants in the Congress, and giants in the Armed Forces. Our leaders made bold, courageous, very risky decisions, but those leaders were also fallible humans whose decisions and plans weren't always as perfect as we might have hoped. We, who carried out their decisions, were also fallible humans, and certainly didn't do everything as well as we might have. There were mistakes and lapses of courage and judgment. Nevertheless, both nationally and individually, we acted responsibly, and we did what we could to right what went wrong. The wrong doers, whether soldiers who committed crimes against noncombatants or war profiteers at home, were prosecuted and punished. The sweat, blood and bravery of the many washed away the stain of the few who dishonored the nation and its Armed Forces. The Nation's unity remained intact during the very darkest moments and through some truly dreadful defeats. The relentless march to victory always continued.
Sixty years ago today, America and her allies were engaged across nearly the entire globe. In the Pacific, U.S. Army troops were battling along the north coast of New Guinea, U.S. Naval forces were engaged in great sea and air battles in the Marianas as Marines prepared to assault those islands. Merrill's Marauders and other Army troops joined British and Chinese allies in the fighting in the China-Burma border region. Our Navy and Merchant Marine battled submarines to get supplies to us and our allies, including the brave Russian forces fighting great battles in Eastern Europe. In Britain, hundreds of thousands of U.S. and British troops were preparing for the monumental invasion of Normandy eight days hence. American and British air armadas were pounding targets in Germany and France. As for me, personally, I was with my division, the 34th, fighting in the Alban Hills on the approaches to Rome. By that time, we had been in combat about a year and a half in North Africa and Italy. We had fought alongside troops from Britain, France, New Zealand, Canada, India, Algeria, Morocco, Poland, Brazil, and even those of our earlier opponent, Italy. It was indeed a World War.
I, like most of my comrades, fought in strange places because we had sworn to support and defend the Constitution and obey the orders of the President and the officers appointed over us, and not because we understood the grand vision of our leaders for a world embracing the "Four Freedoms," freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Those leaders recognized that when freedom is denied anywhere, it is threatened everywhere. The world created in the aftermath of World War II didn't completely embody those freedoms. It wasn't a perfect world. It did, however, bring new freedoms and opportunity to hundreds of millions of people, including the people of our former enemy nations. Empire and colonialism were headed for history's dust bin, and America was headed into a new age of economic growth and prosperity with a new mantle for world leadership.
Now, we of the World War II generation are thinning in our ranks and hairlines – probably everywhere, but our waistlines. We are mindful that the freedom we enjoyed was a dividend from the sacrifices and perspiration of our forebears. In World War II and the years which followed, we added our blood and sweat to the Nation's asset pool. We have now passed the baton to others. The memorial we dedicate today will help those who follow remember the Nation's efforts and sacrifices in our time.
Today, American soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen are again fighting difficult battles in strange places because they, too, swore an oath to defend the Constitution and to obey the orders of the President and the officers appointed over them, and because those who lead us again, believe they have made bold, courageous, risky decisions to make the Nation and the world safer places for all. We pray for their success and safety.
Today, in this house of prayer and worship, let us thank Almighty God for this great Nation and its heritage passed to us. Let us pray that God will keep our Nation, one united, freedom-loving, and respectful people with the spirit of wisdom and dedicated to the rule of law. Let us ask for the Lord's blessing and guidance upon those who govern the United States and upon all those who defend her. Before we move to the dedication ceremony for the new Monument, let us pray that our Nation will, as Thomas Jefferson did, continue to "…pledge eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man."