Much of focus this year on World War II, Vietnam veterans
By Ralph Dannheisser
November 12, 2007
Washington - The November 11 holiday created to pay tribute to U.S. veterans of World War I has been expanded in more recent times into the annual Veterans Day, honoring all those who have served in the U.S. military.
This year, recognition of those who fought in World War II and in Vietnam will be a major part of observances in Washington and in communities across the country.
The earlier, more narrowly focused Armistice Day commemorated the end of fighting in World War I under the armistice implemented at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918 -- "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."
President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day just a year later, setting the characteristic tone of the U.S. observances in years to come. He said that the holiday would be "filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations."
Armistice Day's message of peace and international solidarity was reiterated when the holiday formally received its name in 1926. Congress passed a resolution asking the president to call for the U.S. flag to be displayed on all public buildings on November 11, and to call on citizens "to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples."
Congress followed up in 1938 by designating Armistice Day a legal holiday, dedicated to the cause of world peace.
But Wilson's hope that World War I would be the "war to end war" collapsed soon after, with the outbreak of new fighting in Europe. The United States entered World War II in 1941. More than 16 million Americans were to take part; 407,000 of them died, more than 292,000 in battle.
Seeking to pay tribute to those 16 million, and others who had served the nation in any of its wars, Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 redesignated the November 11 holiday as Veterans Day. "On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores to preserve our heritage of freedom," Eisenhower wrote in his first Veterans Day proclamation, "and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain."
In 1958, two unidentified American war dead, one from World War II and one from the Korean War, were buried in Arlington Cemetery, just outside Washington, alongside the Unknown Soldier from World War I who had been interred there in 1921. And in 1984, an unknown serviceman from the Vietnam War was placed beside them. They jointly symbolize all Americans who gave their lives in all wars.
This year, as always, the memorial amphitheater built around the Tomb of the Unknowns remains the focal point for national Veterans Day ceremonies. The traditions have been firmly established: a combined color guard representing all military services executes "present arms" at the tomb, the president lays a wreath, a bugler plays "taps."
As the 2007 commemoration approached, the aging of the World War II generation of veterans, and the growing loss of numbers of them, focused increased attention on their contributions.
Television journalist Tom Brokaw called attention to their sacrifice in a 1998 book, The Greatest Generation, in which he deemed them "the greatest generation any society has ever produced." Director Steven Spielberg portrayed, the same year, American soldiers in World War II Europe in his film Saving Private Ryan; Clint Eastwood did the same for troops in the Pacific in his 2006 films Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers.
In May 2004, aging but proud veterans attended the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on Washington's Mall, between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
Most recently, PBS Television ran, over two weeks in September and October, a 15-hour-long Ken Burns documentary, The War, featuring interviews with dozens of World War II veterans. Burns said he had undertaken the project partly because the war's veterans were dying at an accelerating pace. "It hurt me that we were hemorrhaging these memories," he said.
Special attention is focused on Vietnam as well: 2007 marks the 25th anniversary of the completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- in Constitution Gardens, adjacent to the Mall -- which features a black stone wall inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 service members killed or unaccounted for in the Vietnam War.
Beginning November 7 and leading up to the eve of Veterans Day, volunteers recited the names aloud.
And Vietnam veterans, military vehicles, floats, motorcycles and marching bands from around the country combined to celebrate the memorial's anniversary with a parade November 10, the day before the nationwide observances on "the eleventh day of the eleventh month" itself.
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