World War II Veterans Visit Their Memorial

World War II veterans are now making the trip to Washington, D.C. to see their memorial. The first of its kind. The formal dedication of the National World War II Memorial will take place May 29th, but opening it early was a priority. Sixteen million Americans served. There are only about four million veterans alive today. We now bring you more of our exclusive private tour of the WWII Memorial before it was open to the public.

The wire fence once surrounding the National World War II Memorial is now down, but not without serving as a window for many to remember what happened 59 years ago. There was an urgency to finish this memorial since the country is losing more than 1000 WWII veterans a day.

83 year old Captain Frank Caldwell, from South Carolina, was in the US Marine Corps. He's glad he's still alive to see the memorial complete. "I landed on Iwo Jima with 258 marines, navy coleman and officers. I walked away, after 36 days, with 44 of those. The rest had been killed or wounded and evacuated," says Captain Caldwell.

One of the men in his Rifle Company was 82 year old Lieutenant Bill Eckerson from Massachusetts. "We were severely racked by machine gun fire and terrible casualties. I was a Second Lieutenant and Platoon Leader and I was wounded and survived," says Lieutenant Eckerson.

These fellow soldiers were overcome with emotion looking at the memorial now honoring them. Caldwell says, "I'm very much impressed with this memorial. I travel all over the world and I don't think I have ever seen anything that takes my breath away as much as this memorial and I get something right here in my throat. I'm crying thinking about the people I left behind and I'm proud of my country."

Looking at the memorial Eckerson says, "It's very difficult to talk about. It has a lot of emotion but mostly because of all the fellows I knew so well that gave their lives. They were only 19, 20 and 21. That's very young. So, this is a beautiful memorial in memory of them."

The man overseeing this enormous memorial is Barry Owenby, the Project Executive. He told me he has already gotten a lot of feedback from veterans. "Most of it's non verbal. Lots of tears. They're thanking us and we're trying to say thank you to them," says Owenby.

It's a special project for Owenby; a one of a kind experience. You can tell by the tears in his eyes just how special it really is. "It's really hard for me. It's really hard for a lot of my colleagues to describe the feeling. I've been involved in this in one way or another since 1995. My dad's a World War II veteran. I've got uncles who were in the war. I don't know what else to say," says Owenby as a tear spills out of his eye.

With a well of emotion, Owenby looks around trying to find just the right words to describe this awesome site. "I like the bronze work. It's very emotional but, for me, what really does it for this memorial are the beautiful stone and architecture and more importantly the words. The inscriptions. What we carve in stone has a lot to do with who we are as a people and I hope people read the words. I hope future generations think about what that generation did."

On the far end of the memorial is an area called Freedom Wall. It consists of 4000 gold sculpted stars. Each star represents 100 American lives lost in World War II.

Lost, but as President Truman said, "American will never forget their sacrifices" or, where they came from. There is one pillar for each of the US states, territories and the District of Columbia at the time of the war.

"When you come in and you see the 56 columns, especially in the evening, they almost look like sentinels. They're standing guard over what this memorial means. They're on guard for all of our values and everything," says Owenby gazing at the memorial at night.

The memorial is illuminated with more than 800, carefully placed, lights. Owenby explains, "We didn't want the memorial to overpower either the Lincoln or Washington Monuments. So, it's subdued in a way, but it's very effective."

Walking around the memorial at night brings a sense of calm. Much like the end of the war as General Douglas McAuthur said, "The entire world is quietly at peace." So too, was Mike Balis seeing the memorial for the first time. He's the son of a WWII veteran. Mike says, "As I look around this memorial I see my dad. I see the service metal for World War II that I was used to seeing as a child and the statue of freedom with the broken sword for victory. Those are the metals I remember seeing in my dad's medal cabinet."

Mike's mother was a Red Cross worker during WWII at a hospital that specialized in amputations. Everyday she had to bear the burden, and worry, that the next man brought in might be her husband. Mike says, "The tribute to the home front and to the women really rings true in my heart. To think of mom, who has unfortunately passed on, she lives through these quotes, I love that."

As Mike continued to wander around the memorial that night, his path crossed Owenby's. Mike quickly extended his hand saying, "As the son of a World War II veteran, I am very grateful to you and the American Battle Monuments Commission. It's all for them."

WWII veterans who have seen the memorial say it's an impressive site giving them a sense of recognition long overdue, but well worth the wait. They just wish more of their fellow soldiers could be there.

"Well, we made it and we deserve it," says Captain Caldwell.

Lieutenant Eckerson says, "I'm here because I think all my marine buddies that I love would expect me to come down here and see this."

And hopefully for others seeing this, it will inspire future generations of Americans, deepening their appreciation of what the World War II generation accomplished in securing freedom and democracy. A lot of tears will be shed here, shed as we remember our Greatest Generation.

There is a WWII Registry for you to add your name or your loved one's name. We've had so many of you asking for that information that we wanted to show it to you again. Just go back to our home page and click on the "Know More On 7" icon. There, you'll find a link titled "World War II Registry." Or, you can do it by calling the memorial at 1-800-639-4992. If you are planning a visit to the memorial keep this in mind, you can't actually register a name at the site, it has to be done by phone or online.

Gillian Sheridan, reporting.