In the first week of January 1945, a hungry and lonesome second lieutenant from small town Kansas dispatched a message to his folks back home: "You can send me something to eat whenever you are ready," he wrote. “Send candy, gum, cookies, cheese, grape jelly, popcorn, nuts, peanut clusters, Vicks Vapo Rub, wool socks, wool scarf, fudge, cookies, ice cream, liver and onions, fried chicken, banana cake, milk, fruit cocktail, Swiss steaks, crackers, more candy, Lifesavers, peanuts, the piano, the radio, the living room suite, the record player and Frank Sinatra. I guess you might as well send the whole house if you can get it into a five-pound box. P.S., keep your fingers crossed.
In authoring that only slightly exaggerated wish list I merely echoed the longings of 16 million Americans whose greatest wish was for an end to the fighting. Sixty years on our ranks have dwindled for the thousands assembled here on the Mall and the millions more watching all across America in living rooms and hospitals and wherever it may be – our men and women overseas and our friends in Great Britain and our allies all around the world. Our final reunion cannot long be delayed.
Yet if we gather in the twilight it is brightened by the knowledge that we have kept faith with our comrades. Sustained by over 600,000 individual contributions, we have raised this memorial to commemorate the service and sacrifice of an entire generation. What we dedicate today is not a memorial to war, rather it's a tribute to the physical and moral courage that makes heroes out of farm and city boys and that inspires Americans in every generation to lay down their lives for people they will never meet, for ideals that make life itself worth living.
This is also a memorial to the American people who in the crucible of war forged a unity that became our ultimate weapon. Just as we pulled together in the course of a common threat 60 years ago, so today's Americans united to build this memorial. Small children held their grandfather’s hand while dropping pennies in a collection box. Entire families contributed in memory of loved ones who could win every battle except the battle against time. I think of my brother, Kenny, and my brothers-in-law Larry Nelson and Allen Steel, just three among the millions of ghosts in navy blue and olive drab we honor with this memorial.
Of course, not every warrior wore a uniform. As it happens, today is the 101st birthday of Bob Hope, the GI's favorite entertainer who did more to boost our morale than anyone next to Betty Grable. And I can already hear Bob…“but I was next to Betty Grable.” And it's hard to believe, but today is also the 87th birthday of John F. Kennedy, a hero of the south Pacific, who, a generation after the surrender documents were signed aboard the USS Missouri, spoke of a new generation of Americans tempered by war that was nevertheless willing “to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty.” And we shall always honor the memory of our great leader and our American hero, General Eisenhower, who led us to victory all across the world.
As we meet here today, young Americans are risking their lives in liberty's defense. They are the latest link in a chain of sacrifice older than America itself. After all, if we met the test of our times, it was because we drew inspiration from those who had gone before, including the giants of history who are enshrined on this Mall, from Washington, who fathered America with his sword and ennobled it with his character… from Jefferson, whose pen gave eloquent voice to our noblest aspirations…from Lincoln, who preserved the Union and struck the chains from our countrymen…and from Franklin Roosevelt, who presided over a global coalition to rescue humanity from those who had put the soul itself in bondage. Each of these presidents was a soldier of freedom. And in the defining event of the 20th century, their cause became our cause. On distant fields and fathomless oceans, the skies over half the planet and in 10,000 communities on the home front, we did far more than avenge Pearl Harbor. The citizen soldiers who answered liberty's call fought not for territory, but for justice, not for plunder, but to liberate enslaved peoples around the world.
In contending for democracy abroad, we learned painful lessons about our own democracy. For us, the Second World War was in effect a second American revolution. The war invited women into the workforce. It exposed the injustice on African Americans, Hispanics and Japanese Americans and others who demonstrated yet again that war is an equal opportunity employer. What we learned in foreign fields of battle we applied in post-war America. As a result, our democracy, though imperfect, is more nearly perfect than in the days of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. That's what makes America forever a work in progress – a land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming. And that's why the armies of democracy have earned a permanent place on this sacred ground.
It is only fitting when this memorial was opened to the public about a month ago the very first visitors were school children. For them, our war is ancient history and those who fought it are slightly ancient themselves. Yet, in the end, they are the ones for whom we built this shrine and to whom we now hand the baton in the unending relay of humidity possibility.
Certainly the heroes represented by the 4,000 gold stars on the freedom wall need no monument to commemorate their sacrifice. They are known to God and to their fellow soldiers, who will mourn their passing until the day of our own. In their names, we dedicate this place of meditation, and it is in their memory that I ask you to stand, if possible, and join me in a moment of silent tribute to remind us all that at sometime in our life, we have or may be called upon to make a sacrifice for our country to preserve liberty and freedom…
…God bless America.