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WWII memorial dedication to salute heroes

President Bush will be among those attending the dedication of the National World War II Memorial.
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The National World War II Memorial honors courage and sacrifice.
CNN's coverage of the dedication of the National World War II Memorial begins Friday at 2 p.m. ET. 
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A highlight of the Memorial Day weekend will be Saturday's dedication of the National World War II Memorial, which caps the 16-year effort to honor the spirit and sacrifice of America's involvement in World War II.

The memorial, which opened to the public on April 29, honors the 16 million Americans who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, the millions who helped the war effort at home and the 405,399 men and women who gave their all in the fight against Germany, Italy and Japan.

"I am awestruck," said World War II Army veteran George McKinney during his first visit to the site. "It's beautiful and appropriate and I like it." Fifty-nine years ago the Berea, Kentucky, native was commanding a German POW camp.

Rising nobly on the east end of the National Mall's Reflecting Pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, the circular World War II memorial honors those who served in the military and those who served on the home front, according to the National Park Service.

An arching Freedom Wall is spangled with 4,000 stars representing the more than 400,000 Americans who died in the war that determined the course of history in so many profound ways.

On stone in front of the wall are the words, engraved in capital letters, "Here we mark the price of freedom."

Two 43-foot tall arches stand at either end of the memorial, representing the Pacific and Atlantic war theaters. Fifty-six 17-foot granite pillars -- representing U.S. territories and states at the time and the District of Columbia -- encircle the Rainbow Pool and plaza. At night, lights mounted in the pillars glow.

Esther Cohen, one of the many women who enlisted in the war effort -- either as Navy WAVES or Army WACS -- said she was touched by the monument. "I think the location they chose for it is excellent because you can see the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial on both sides. And it was well-planned, well-done and moving."

Actually, the monument's location did much to delay the project, which Congress authorized in 1993. Opponents complained that its size -- 7.4 acres -- and its proposed spot in the center of the Mall would ruin what may be the city's most famous vista.

The last monument to be erected on the Mall was the nearby Korean War Veterans Memorial, with its etched marble wall and the 19 larger-than-life statues of dogged ground troopers -- dedicated in 1995.

Army Air Corps vet Ernie Scheyder -- who served in Sicily and North Africa from 1942 to 1945 -- said: "The signs are very impressive and I think it brings back a lot of memories -- good and bad. I'm sure people will come and really benefit from seeing it."

The World War II monument is also near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the District of Columbia World War I Memorial and Constitution Gardens.

The Veterans Affairs Department estimates that 1,056 veterans of the war are dying each day, a statistic not lost upon former Navy radio operator Robert Collins.

"I didn't think I was going to live long enough to see it," Collins said, admiring the monument from his wheelchair with his daughter and grandson. "I had a heart attack about a month ago, but I got here."

Lights on the 56 pillars illuminate the memorial at night.

Saturday's dedication ceremony is expected to be a spectacular affair, with President Bush and former commanders-in-chief as guests. Security will be tightened for the event, according to the National Park Service.

About 117,000 free tickets to the event were distributed and 50,000 people are on a waiting list to attend the historic dedication.

The ceremony is only one of many events this weekend honoring the World War II generation. As part of the National World War II Reunion, tents and stages will be erected on the mall offering exhibits and shows, including concerts featuring 1940s big band music.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole -- one of the key war veterans who pushed the privately funded project -- is expected to take part and recount his experiences during the war. The Kansas Republican and 1996 presidential nominee helped raise money for the $174 million project.

Dole -- who was badly wounded in 1945 while leading an assault on a German machine gun nest in northern Italy's Po Valley -- used his political experience to shepherd legislation through Congress to construct the memorial.

Navy veteran Nikolai Severski, 83, of Menwell, New York, said private fund-raising for the monument was important to him.

"I think it is beautiful it was built by the people's donations, and that's why I'm happy," Severski said, braving the hot Washington spring weather. Once a radioman aboard the destroyer USS Maury in the Pacific, Severski took issue with those who describe his generation as the greatest. "I wouldn't say we were the greatest. I would say we were one of the greatest. We all wanted peace."'s Thom Patterson and CNN's Mark Shields and Bob Kovach contributed to this report.

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