MEMORIAL DEBUT LONG-AWAITED WWII MONUMENT OPENS TO PUBLIC.
Tom Parks' dad flew B-17s in World War II and survived a German prisoner of war camp. His mom was a highly decorated U.S. Army veteran. His uncle was killed in action.
So the Hollywood comedian, actor, writer, producer and director was thrilled to design a warm-up show for the Memorial Day dedication ceremony of the new World War II Memorial, which opened Thursday at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The two-hour show on May 31 will feature three military bands and a swinging video presentation for some 180,000 World War II veterans.
``It's going to be a magnificent day,'' said Parks, 54, of Hollywood. ``It'll be jammed. I'm very excited. We're coming on like gangbusters - it'll be a lot of fun.''
Parks said his family represents the expression of the World War II generation. He designed his show to recognize the sacrifice and dedication that generation gave to the world.
Parks, who has appeared on ``The Tonight Show'' and ``Late Night with David Letterman,'' has starred in his own HBO and Showtime comedy specials and has made numerous TV and movie appearances.
The national monument to the 16 million U.S. men and women who served during World War II opened to the public Thursday, giving veterans of that era a sense of recognition some say was long overdue but well worth the wait.
``It is beautiful,'' declared World War II veteran and former Marine George Lynch. ``To see this memorial after all these years is absolutely marvelous.''
The granite and bronze monument features waterfalls, fountains and a curved wall bedecked with gold stars to represent the more than 400,000 who gave their lives in the war.
On its opening day, in glorious sunshine, the memorial immediately helped introduce another generation to the heroism that brought victory to America and its allies.
As the first visitors, hundreds of schoolchildren raced down two entrance ramps after receiving a stern warning from the National 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 one of the first visitors.
``He's proud that people are finally recognizing him,'' said Richter, who was with 400 other eighth-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 sits prominently between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall.
Equal in size to the length of a football field, the memorial has a hulking 43-foot arch 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 $174 million project is the culmination of years of arm-twisting and fund raising by veterans, including former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. From sources 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.
Parks' warm-up show will include a soundstage, four large video screens, USO-style acts and period music by the U.S. Coast Guard, Army and Air Force bands.
(1 -- color) A woman contemplates the monument's gold stars, which symbolize more than 400,000 Americans killed in the war.
(2 -- color) Hundreds of people view the plaza of the new World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning.
Rick McKay/Cox News Service
(3) A view from the neighboring Washington Monument shows the new memorial, foreground, next to the Lincoln Memorial, background, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Lauren Burke/Associated Press