Air Force Memorial Unveiled at the Pentagon

A $30 million Air Force Memorial is unveiled at a Pentagon ceremony. It will open to the public Tuesday. The Air Force is the last of the military services to have a national memorial dedicated to those who gave their lives in the service of their country.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The U.S. Air Force celebration of its 60th anniversary took off this weekend with the dedication of the United States Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

(Soundbite of song "God Bless America")

ALLISON KEYES: Ninety-one-year-old retired Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Oritsen(ph) craned his neck, following the gleam of the sun on the three central spires of this soaring memorial. He says he's proud to be here; three generations of Air Force men, including himself, his son and his grandson, an Air Force Academy cadet, class 2008. Oritsen flew as a navigator during World War II - 50 missions over Europe and North Africa - and says it seemed odd that all the branches of military service except the Air Force had a memorial in the nation's capital until now.

Lieutenant Colonel DANIEL ORITSEN (Retired, U.S. Air Force): And I think we are entitled to it. We lost so many guys, you know, especially in World War II, that it's honoring them, and I think that's a nice thought.

KEYES: Many in the audience wore their uniforms, or at least a flight cap or bomber's jacket. They came, some in wheelchairs, to honor the 54,000 airmen and women killed while serving in the Air Force and its predecessor organizations. Retired Colonel Charles E. McGee is one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military airmen. The three war veteran says he was especially glad to be here.

Colonel CHARLES E. McGEE (Retired, U.S. Air Force): Our experience let the Air Force really lead the country in integration, because the Air Force said we need to use people based on their training and experience and where needed, not the color of their skin.

KEYES: The dedication ceremony was full of fanfare. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke after being ribbed for serving in the Navy. And President Bush told the crowd the Air Force is at the forefront of the war on terror and that the memorial's location, overlooking the Pentagon where the nation was attacked on September 11th, is fitting.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And looking from this promontory to a place once filled with smoke and flames, we remember why we need them.

KEYES: For many, the most spectacular part of the dedication was a flyover by the Thunderbirds, who performed their famous bomb-burst maneuver.

(Soundbite of airplanes)

KEYES: The team's operations officer, Major Jeremy Sloan, says the memorial's design mirrors the flyers' precision.

Major JEREMY SLOAN (U.S. Air Force): Take a look at these spires. It looks like that right now. It is - it goes straight up into the air with four ships as they split into pure vertical and each into four different directions.

KEYES: Eighty-eight-year-old retired Colonel Harold Jefferson(ph), who survived eight months as a prisoner of war in Germany in World War II, says he hopes the memorial reminds people of how things have been and how they could be again.

The first memorial service here will be held later this morning. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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