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World War II Memorial's completion comes none too soon for vets | (KRT) Construction of the National World War II Memorial had just started Sept. 11, 2001, when a terrorist-controlled plane nose-dived into the Pentagon. Workers could feel the shuddering impact and see the sudden funnel of black smoke.

Now, 2 ½ years later, the work is almost done. The chain-link fences will come down late next month or in April, quietly opening the 7.4-acre site to public view. Then will come a formal dedication on Memorial Day weekend at which 106,000 people are expected to be seated on folding chairs across the National Mall.

The dedication comes none too soon. Of the veterans who will be there that day, the youngest of them will be in their late 70s. Even as young Americans fight another war in Iraq, the $67.5 million monument will have the effect of reasserting the dominant place of World War II in U.S. history.

A wall of 4,000 gold stars, hoisted upright last week, commemorates the approximately 400,000 Americans who died in the conflict between 1941 and 1945. A pair of 43-foot-tall arches, marked "Atlantic" and "Pacific," symbolize the two-ocean scope of the war. Fifty-six polished slabs, each 17 feet tall and standing in a vast circle, represent the U.S. states and territories at the time of the war.

Amid 17 million pounds of granite lies the old Rainbow Pool, half-way between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

Washington architectural historian Judy Feldman, leader of a "Save Our Mall" group that fought the project, still believes it is on the wrong site, is too big and smacks of "triumphalism."

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But she and other foes, having lost in federal court, long ago acquiesced to the presence of the memorial.

"I go by it a lot, and I think it's what we said it would be," she said. "It has altered the open spaces and ... meaning of the mall. But there it is."

The 2001 terrorist attacks - and the subsequent deaths of U.S. military personnel on battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq - had the potential to divert the desire of Americans to heap honors on veterans of a war fought six decades ago.

But Edward T. Linenthal, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who has written extensively on a recent monument-building in America, said just the opposite appeared to happen.

The Sept. 11 attacks and war on terrorism seemed to sweep away most lingering opposition to the memorial. It was as if Americans longed to draw on the national unity and resolve that World War II had fostered and that was represented by living veterans.

"Here were the veterans of the `good war,' and where was their memorial on the Mall?" Linenthal said. "If World War II is not an event that deserves to be remembered, what is?"

Mike Conley, assistant director of the World War II memorial, which is being built by the American Battlefield Monuments Commission, said the agency feels an urgency to finish.

Every month, he said, he encounters World War II veterans looking through the fence - watching the cranes lift the slabs into place, admiring from afar the bronze eagles and wreathes - who want to know when it all will be done.

The Department of Veterans Affairs calculates that of the 16 million Americans who served in the World War II armed forces, 4 million are alive today.

"They are dying at the rate of 1,100 a day," Conley said.

Sarah Lawrence College professor Nicolaus Mills, author of a forthcoming book on the building of the World War II memorial, comments: "I've called it their last battle. These guys will be in their 80s, and my guess is that, for many, their first visit will be their last visit. ... The obvious question is, if not now, when? Wait until they're 100?"

There might been no World War II memorial if there had not been memorials for the Vietnam and Korean wars, also located on the Mall, but comparatively off to the side and under trees.

Vietnam veterans, who as Conley noted received "the brunt of the national anger" over the Vietnam war, fought for a memorial to honor the memory of their comrades who had died in the 1960s and '70s.

Dedicated in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial brought calls from Korean veterans of the early 1950s for a monument to their conflict, which they pointed out had long been called "the forgotten war."

Congress agreed, and a Korean War memorial was dedicated in 1995.

That, in turn, led to the effort for memorialize the war that its veterans had always referred to as "the Big One."

A congresswoman from Ohio, Democrat Marcy Kaptur, introduced enabling legislation in 1987. A design was selected in 1997, then altered, then altered again. A dedication was led by former President Bill Clinton in 2000, even as the issue was working its way toward the U.S. Supreme Court. In May 2001, a frustrated Congress essentially overruled the lawsuit by passing a law requiring that the memorial be built "expeditiously" at the present site.

The three memorials, together with a recent monument to former President Franklin D. Roosevelt and one honoring women military veterans, both located nearby, figure into the biggest wave of monument building in America since the Civil War.

Yet there is no memorial to the Civil War on the mall. The Lincoln Memorial, designed as a Grecian temple, essentially represents that conflict.

The Washington Memorial, a towering obelisk, suffices for a Revolutionary War memorial.

Stan Wojtusik, of Northeast Philadelphia, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who participated in the 2000 dedication, said the World War II memorial fits right in.

It is not really a monument to warfare, he said, but a monument to sacrifice.

"And a long time coming."

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© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services