The memorial won't be dedicated until May 29, but project organizers decided it should unofficially open as soon as possible so that the ever-dwindling number of men and women who served and were its inspiration can visit it. The fence surrounding the site is expected to come down the last week in April, allowing visitors to roam the memorial grounds.
"We just think it's important that we let the World War II veterans, especially, see it because a lot of them won't be able to make the dedication ceremony," project executive Barry Owenby said Thursday. "We don't want hide our candle under a basket."
The Veterans Affairs Department estimates World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1,056 a day - more than 385,000 a year. Fewer than 4 million will be alive at the time of the dedication.
Owenby led reporters on a tour of the memorial, which sits on a 7.4-acre site on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
Two and a half years after construction began, all of the memorial's granite - more than 17 million pounds - and most of the bronze is in place. Crews are now busy paving sidewalks, wiring lights, and working on the landscape around the memorial.
Equal in size to the length of a football field, the memorial has two hulking 43-foot arches at each end. One is marked Atlantic, the other Pacific - symbolizing the two theaters of the war.
Fifty-six smaller granite pillars adorned with two bronze wreaths form the oval shape of the memorial and encircle a sunken plaza and pool. The pillars represent each state and territory from that period, and the District of Columbia.
The man selected in a nationwide competition to design the memorial says it honors not only the sacrifices of those on the battlefield, but also the resolve of a nation united.
"This is not a healing memorial, but a memorial that recalls, perhaps, the nation's finest hour," said design architect Friedrich St. Florian. "The memorial must serve to remember and to celebrate the colossal triumph of democracy over tyranny ... when a generation of Americans took up arms to preserve and uphold the principles and ideals of the nation."
Walking around the plaza's rainbow pool, visitors can read war quotes etched into the granite - inscriptions from Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and Generals Douglas MacArthur and George C. Marshall, among others.
Framed by cascading waterfalls, there's also a "Freedom Wall" covered with 4,000 gold stars to commemorate the more than 400,000 Americans killed in the war. The gold star was the symbol of the death of a family member in the war.
The wall, said St. Florian, "will remind future generations of the supreme sacrifice without which victory cannot be achieved."
Some 500 construction workers have toiled at the site since digging first began in September 2001, many working up to 14 hours a day on a project that is more than just a job.
"It's an honor," said Horace Yeargin, who helped with waterproofing and other tasks. "You want to do your best because you know it's for those who have died for us and paved the way."
By Jennifer C. Kerr