Thousands of World War II veterans and their families will descend on the National Mall Memorial Day weekend for the dedication of the first National World War II Memorial (search), a reunion that marks for many a long-overdue tribute to a generation growing smaller every day.

“It’s long overdue and I’m glad it’s being done,” said Paul Sauceda, a Marine Corps veteran who fought in the battles of Iwo Jima (search) and Guam during World War II.  He was traveling with his wife Nancy to Washington last week for a veterans’ reunion and to visit the new monument, which is opening up in the coming days for a full public viewing.

“It just takes your breath away,” said his wife Nancy, glancing through the metal fence to the two massive arched towers representing the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war on either side of the restored Rainbow Pool (search).

The monument’s construction began in 2000 — with a $194 million budget — amid controversy: purists believed the site, smack in the middle of the Mall between the looming Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, was all wrong, that it would disrupt the integrity of the two-and-a-half mile stretch of land that includes a tree-lined park and famous reflecting pool.

But architect Friedrich St. Florian’s (search) design allayed those fears, say monument officials and the site’s early visitors this week. Reminiscent of a classical amphitheater, the center of the monument is actually six feet below street level, allowing the visitor to meet the landscape of the Mall at eye level, providing at once a sense of continuum.

“(The designers) worked very hard to integrate beautifully with what already existed,” said Betsy Glick, spokeswoman for the American Battle Monuments Commission (search), which oversaw the building of the National World War II Memorial.   

On the side facing the Washington Monument, wide grassy steps gently descend to the center of the plaza, passing what will be a series of bas-reliefs depicting “the transformation of the United States during the war,” said Glick. The Rainbow Pool, which existed before, has been restored and filled with fountains.

On either side stand the arched towers and inside each of those are three giant bronze American eagles hoisting a victory wreath. Connecting it all are 56 granite pillars, each one named for a state or territory in the World War II era. Each are graced with bronze wreaths and pulled together with a massive bronze rope representing the unity of the fight against tyranny, said Glick.

On the far side of the fountains are thundering waterfalls beside a tranquil Freedom Pool. This sits against the backdrop of 4,000 small gold stars, each one representing 100 American lives lost in war.  

While written messages are there, Glick said the designers were careful not to be “too didactic” or preachy, resting on the strength of the few, carefully placed quotes etched into the massive granite blocks, the bas-relief sculptures and the individual memories and feelings brought by the beholder.

“Our intent was to be purposefully evocative,” she said. She pointed out that as one walks the outside perimeter of the pillars, the sound of the fountains from within create the impression of waves crashing on the beach, one of the many symbols of the eternal, of timelessness, found in the monument’s design. 

Veteran Fred Levantrosser, who traveled from Dearborn, Mich., this week, said the effects were not lost on him.

“There is a modest dignity to it,” he said. “It’s a fabulous monument and long overdue. It’s wonderfully done.”

The creation of the first World War II tribute was spurred by one veteran, Roger Durbin, who first brought the idea to Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio in 1987. It officially broke ground in 1993 under the co-chairmanship of former Sen. Bob Dole, a World War II veteran, and FedEx CEO Frederick Smith. With the help of spokesman and actor Tom Hanks, the effort raised $193 million, and construction began in 2000. Glick said the project's final price tag has come under budget, at $174 million.

“My only question is, why did it take 60 years? We’ve already lost half of the veterans that this monument is honoring,” said Lou Gentile, a World War II veteran from New Britain, Conn., who runs the veteran services office for the city. He said he hopes to someday make the pilgrimage down to Washington, D.C., to see the new monument.

“We’ve become an endangered species,” he added.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (search), approximately 4.3 million World War II veterans were living as of October 2003 — that’s out of about 16.1 million men and women who served worldwide during the war. Reported statistics say veterans are dying at a rate of almost 1,200 per day.

Organizers expect thousands of veterans and their families to attend the Memorial Day reunion, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (search). Events on the Mall will include music and dancing from the era as well as panel discussions, demonstrations and tons of memorabilia.

“I can tell you these guys are very enthused about this thing and for a lot of these guys it’s what keeps them holding on,” said John Bowen, a Korean War veteran who got involved in the Battle of the Bulge Veterans Association (search) because his older brother, who passed away a few years ago, served in that pivotal European battle.

“I think we felt a sense of urgency to build this as fast as we could,” said Glick, who acknowledged that in a matter of decades, all the country will have left is the families, the stories, the memorabilia and the monuments with which to remember these men and women.

“That’s certainly been our impetus for taking the fences down as soon as possible before the construction was finished,” she said.

If previews are any indication, the monument is likely to go over well among the veterans.

"I love it," said veteran Bob Hamilton of Columbus, Ohio, who admired the monument last week with his wife, Beth. "It's big, it's huge. The war was big and huge. This depicts that and I think that's important."