WASHINGTON -- The world owes American WWII veterans a perpetual debt of gratitude, according to dignitaries who marked Victory in Europe Day in the nation's capital on Wednesday.
A crowd of roughly 100 people attended a ceremony at the National World War II Memorial, where guest speakers extolled the sacrifices made by American GIs who bravely fought to "defeat the forces of Fascism" and the "tyranny that was beyond imagination."
As a steady stream of visitors passed through the memorial to remember and reflect, the Army's top enlisted soldier, Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler III, told how the United States will always have a lasting appreciation for the sacrifices WWII veterans made.
"They gave something of themselves, to protect each and every one of us to do what needed to be done: the dirty work of war…. It's tough, it's cold, it's demanding. You've got to reach inside of yourself and find that place where you're going to go beyond what you believe is possible as a soldier and as a human being."
TV news personality Rita Cosby shared a gripping tale of how American GIs not only "saved the world" but also helped her Polish father, Ryszard Kossobudzki, gain his freedom after he escaped from a Nazi concentration camp.
Cosby said her 6-foot-tall father was a virtual walking skeleton, weighing just 90 pounds, when he traded a suit he wore in the prison camp for a loaf of bread. He then shared that loaf with other prisoners so they would have enough energy to plan and execute an escape.
One day, as her father and his fellow escapees were nearing a field, a plane flew overhead. Fearing they had been spotted by the Germans, they dove to the ground when an object, which they thought was a grenade, was lobbed from the plane. It turned out to be a chocolate bar with a note instructing the POWs where to go to find the American forces.
"They ran 15 miles and came to a riverbed, and on the other side of that riverbed were young American GIs, smiling and hugging them and telling them they are free and they are safe."
Cosby recounted that later in his life, her father would say of VE Day, May 8, 1945, that it was "one of the greatest days of his life."
Her father eventually came to America, she said "because he wanted to give back to this phenomenal country that sent its men and women thousands of miles away to free him and so many other people around the world. He believed that America saved the world in World War II, and does it time and time again. My father thought this was the greatest country on Earth because of the many veterans like some of you who are here today."
Retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Paul Kuras, a veteran of WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, greatly appreciated Wednesday's tribute. Although the fighting in WWII had mostly stopped by the time he graduated from boot camp, Kuras, now 85, said his two older brothers were combat infantrymen in Europe during the war. Since his brothers never made it to the memorial, Kuras said it was a great honor to go not only for himself, but also on their behalf.
Kuras, whose Polish parents had immigrated to the United States before the war, said World War II was especially significant to him because he had a cousin who died at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He said he had another cousin who hid from the Germans during the war and from the Russians afterwards.
Veteran Robert Rhoades, 91, said he spent four years in the Navy manning guns on merchant ships and dodging enemy submarines while on resupply convoys. He recalled one episode when a German sub sank a ship that was ahead of his ship. "We saw what they could do. One day we were out going from Tampa Florida down to Key West -- the two of us -- and the one in front … just like that, it was gone."
Rhoades said he and his crew hightailed it back to Tampa and considered themselves lucky to have survived.
"I felt pretty good, that I had done my job," Rhoades said of his war experience. And he said he was greatly impressed being at the memorial for his first visit and witnessing the ceremony honoring those of his generation.
Sgt. Maj. Chandler pointed out how critical it has always been for Americans to welcome back and help out war veterans, whenever their military service to their country has ended. He noted how many WWII vets chose not to talk about their war experiences, but many nevertheless have had to deal with symptoms of post-traumatic stress just as many troops coming back from war zones today are dealing with PTSD.
He urged Americans not to think negatively of veterans just because they might have war-related memories or stresses afflicting them.
"With our World War II veterans, when they demobilized … they went back and did great things for their nation, which we see today. The freedoms that we hold so dearly, but also which we take for granted, truly do rest on the shoulders of that greatest generation."