At a military cemetery on a hill high above Honolulu, President Clinton marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the most destructive war in history Saturday, saying it taught Americans that “the blessings of freedom are never easy or free.”
Hundreds of silver-haired World War II veterans, many of them wearing the medals they won in battle long ago, joined Clinton at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, atop a grassy, extinct volcanic crater known as Punchbowl. Many of the veterans were in wheelchairs.
Fifty years after Japan’s surrender ended World War II, it was a day of solemn commemoration. “It’s very touching to be here today,” said Ralph Bowen of Salt Lake City, Utah. Now 77, he was an artillery major who fought his way into Germany. “A half century. I guess we’re history now.”
More than 33,000 tiny U.S. flags fluttered in the morning breeze at the granite markers of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
There also was a touch of partisan politics, as Clinton used his weekly radio address to accuse Republicans of breaking faith with military veterans with a budget-cutting plan that would reduce their retirement benefits.
At the cemetery memorial, Clinton placed a wreath with a ribbon that said, “A grateful nation remembers.” He was accompanied by two World War II veterans, Navy Ensign Robert Allen and Army Sgt. Alfred Los Banos, who lost both legs in the war. , The mournful notes of Taps brought tears to the eyes of many veterans. One of them was Henry Akana, 75, of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the famed Japanese-American unit that fought in Italy.
“I was crying for my comrades,” Akana said. “Many of them went down - six very good friends. That song is for them and it hits me hard.”
The cemetery ceremony was the first event in a daylong program of observance. Clinton visited the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in Pearl Harbor to dedicate a World War II commemorative stamp and drop a wreath into the water. There was another wreath-laying ceremony at the bone-white memorial spanning the hulk of the battleship Arizona, sunk in Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, with 1,177 American seamen lost. Most are still entombed there.
“The Pacific journey started where we stand today in Pearl Harbor, our darkest dawn,” Clinton said.
Comedian Bob Hope, 92, who entertained troops in the Pacific, was the grand marshal for a veterans parade in Waikiki.
Clinton recalled that five American presidents - from John Kennedy to George Bush - had served in the Pacific. Bush was shot down in the Pacific and rescued 51 years ago Saturday, Clinton said.
“We must never forget both the tragedy and the triumph of that time because it holds lessons for all time,” Clinton said.
“We learned in World War II the forces of darkness give no quarter,” he said. “They must be confronted and defeated. We learned that the blessings of freedom are never easy or free. They must always be defended.”