"World War II really was a crossroads that determined where any of us were going to live and how we were going to live," Spielberg has said. "It is absolutely the single deciding event of the 20th century."

"It's new stuff because we don't teach it in school or concern ourselves with it," Hanks says with the sudden puritanism of a frustrated high school teacher. "It seems like mythic stuff that happened long ago." That commitment to the myth, along with his familiar self-effacing style, has made Hanks something of a hero to the WWII veterans, whose legacy he's helped thrust into the spotlight so late in life.

"It's been just humdrum since I was discharged 57 years ago," says Easy Company veteran Frank Soboleski of International Falls, Minnesota.

"Same thing all the time: work, hunt, trap, snowmobile. There's not a lot to do in Minnesota. And now, all this!" Soboleski says this from the window seat of a 777, as the wing dips and he looks down on the morning lights of Paris.

None of the vets showed up in France without a limp or ancient wound. Several arrived in wheelchairs, others with missing limbs. On behalf of their legacy, Hanks and Spielberg have worked hard and, like them, usually without trumpets blaring. When asked about his contributions and lobbying efforts on behalf of the National World War II Memorial, Hanks quietly demurs. "Other people have done a lot more," he says.

Spielberg has also given mightily of the "blood money," as he calls the profits from such movies as Schindler's List. In 1994, he established the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which has since recorded more than 50,000 unedited testimonies of Holocaust survivors to be used by teachers, students, and researchers for generations to come.