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WWII Memorial Opens To Public

A national monument to the 16 million U.S. men and women who served during World War II opened to the public Thursday and immediately helped introduce another generation to the heroism that brought victory to America and its allies.

For the veterans who came to see the long awaited memorial the verdict was immediate and emotional, reports CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews.

"The feeling that I have, I shake all over," Marine veteran Don Jeffries told Andrews.

"I think it is the most magnificent things, and about time, too, while we're still alive," Coast Guard veteran Mary Gubish said.

Hundreds of schoolchildren were among the first visitors. They raced down two entrance ramps to the granite and bronze memorial after receiving a stern warning from the U.S. Park Service not to throw any coins into the many fountains because they stain the granite.

The children shouted and pointed, exclaiming "Oh, cool!" and "Look at that!"

Zach Richter, 14, of Newtown, Conn., whose grandfather served in World War II, said he couldn't wait to get home to call him and let him know his grandson was among the first visitors.

"He's proud that people are finally recognizing him," said Richter, who was with 400 other 8th-graders from Newtown Middle School.

The memorial has been almost two decades in the making. While the formal dedication ceremony is still a month away, project organizers raced to put the finishing touches on the memorial so the ever-dwindling number of veterans from that era can visit it.

America's World War II vets are dying at a rate of 1,056 a day, the Veterans Affairs Department estimates. Fewer than 4 million will be alive at the time of the Memorial Day weekend dedication.

Until now, veterans and tourists have only been able to peek at the memorial through wire fencing surrounding the site or from a small walkway on one end. Now that the fences are down, visitors can roam freely about the memorial, which spans the length of a football field and sits prominently between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.

The $174 million project is the culmination of years of arm-twisting and fund raising by veterans, including former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. From schoolchildren to corporations, more than $195 million was raised. The remaining money will be put in a trust fund for future use.

The dedication next month is expected to draw a big crowd. Some 117,000 free tickets were snapped up in a matter of weeks, and there's a waiting list with 50,000 names on it.

President Bush and all the living former presidents have been invited to the event.

The Smithsonian Institution is planning four days of festivities on the National Mall to coincide with the May 29 dedication ceremony.

"We certainly think this could be the largest gathering of World War II veterans in one place since war ended in 1945," said Jim Deutsch, program curator for the National World War II Reunion.

At the "Tribute to a Generation," there will be two stages playing music from the 1940s from the Ink Spots, the Artie Shaw Orchestra and others.

Eight tents will cover four blocks along the Mall. In one tent, veterans can reunite with old comrades. And under another, veterans will share their stories and experiences. Dole and former Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. George McGovern are among those expected to speak.

"What we're interested in learning about is what World War II meant to members of this generation," Deutsch said.