Every last weekend in May, thousands of people make the pilgrimage to the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol for the annual National Memorial Day Concert. Millions more may enjoy it from the comfort of their living rooms via live television broadcast.
Now in its 16th year, this year's concert has special poignance. It will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the battle for Iwo Jima and pay special tribute to the troops still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In addition to the National Symphony Orchestra, an array of award winning actors and musical artists will be featured this year. Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell will pay special tribute to the legendary actor and civil rights activist Ossie Davis, who died earlier this year and was host of the Memorial Day Concert for the past decade.
Returning to the Memorial Day concert stage is one of its most popular regulars, award-winning actress and singer, Harolyn Blackwell. "I remember the first time doing it, the very first time," she says. "Tears were streaming down my face, and I thought, 'This is just so powerful.'"
Ms. Blackwell, who is celebrated for her work both in opera and on Broadway, says singing for the National Memorial Day concert is a special experience for her. "It's a way to honor those men and women who fought in different world wars and presently in Iraq and Afghanistan," she says. "What's so great about this opportunity is that it's a story about how they survived and about their hardship as well as the hope that we get from the experience."
This year, concertgoers will hear the story of Danny Thomas, a World War II Naval medic. Mr. Thomas was 19 when he was assigned to the Marines at the Japanese-held Pacific Island of Iwo Jima. Although he says he was scared, he says it wasn't for his own safety. "I was scared I wouldn't measure up," he says, "wouldn't be able to do what was expected of me."
Mr. Thomas survived what would be the bloodiest battle fought in Marine Corp history. He will be a featured guest at this year's Memorial Day concert, where his battleground experience will be read by actor Charles Durning.
Mr. Thomas remembers the historic moment when the Marines raised the American flag at Iwo Jima, captured in a photograph and later used as the prototype for the Marine Corp War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. "I heard one of the radio men in our group. He was standing up hollering. He was dancing a jig and waved his helmet in the air, saying, 'The flag is up! The flag is up! Look on the mountain, the flag,'" the veteran recalls.
"And as I looked over the edge of the shell crater I was in, I saw him drop, he had been hit through the head with a sniper bullet," Mr. Thomas says. "When I went over to him, he was dead. I went back to my shell hole and somebody had a pair of binoculars and we could see them up on the edge of the mountain, the flag waving above the rim."
While many people mistakenly believe that was the end of the battle, Danny Thomas says, "The worst battle had just begun."
Also highlighted in the concert will be the story of Deborah May, an Iraq war widow who speaks for countless other relatives and friends of American troops who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. The annual National Memorial Day Concert will be broadcast Sunday night on American public television and radio and may be heard in 135 countries on the American Forces Radio and Television Network.