NETTUNO, Italy -- He came on a mission of remembrance, to pay homage to the sacrifice of so many young men who died to make a world free.
President Clinton arrived at the beautiful, mournful Sicily-Rome American cemetery here on a muggy, cloud-dappled day to give thanks to the thousands of GIs who survived the bloody campaign to liberate Italy -- and to the 7,862 dead who are buried here.
To the crash of cannon and the haunting strains of Chopin's "Funeral March," a somber President Clinton saluted the more than 1,000 military veterans and guests at the Nettuno memorial service.
"You cannot leave memory to chance," he said. "We are the sons and daughters of the world they saved."
Yesterday's ceremony was the first of three major commemorative events to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the end of the bloodiest conflagration in history.
At Nettuno, 40 miles south of Rome, President Clinton honored the men who struggled their way from Sicily northward, up the mountainous spine of the Italian peninsula through a winter of ice and mud, hardship and death.
The caps of the aging veterans spelled out the names of the units, and their name tags bore the names of places of horror that will live in history, Salerno, Anzio, Monte Cassino.
The Nettuno cemetery lies just inland from Anzio, the port where Allied troops landed in January 1944 in the face of stiff German resistance.
Mr. Clinton noted that his father, William Jefferson Blythe, served in Italy. He recalled a story told to him about his father, who died in 1946 three months before the president's birth.
"Back home, his niece had heard about the beautiful Italian countryside and wrote him asking for a single leaf from one of the glorious trees here to take to school," President Clinton said. "My father had only sad news to send back -- there were no leaves; every one had been stripped by the fury of the battle."
The leaves have now returned, and the Nettuno cemetery is a lush memorial garden of evergreen, holly, oak and cypress trees.
"We stand today in fields forever scarred by sacrifice," Mr. Clinton said, in one of his most eloquent and brief speeches as president. "But amid the horror of the guns, something rare was born -- a driving spirit of common cause."
Mr. Clinton honored his chief adversary on Capitol Hill, Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., who as a 21-year-old platoon leader with the 10th Mountain Division was gravely wounded in Italy.
Mr. Dole, the Senate Republican leader, was joined at the ceremony by three other Senate veterans of the Italian campaign: Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who lost an arm to his war wounds; Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C.; and Claiborne Pell D-R.I.
President Clinton and Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro laid a wreath at the steps of the American-built memorial.
John Shirley, a decorated veteran of Anzio from Livermore, Calif., called that Italian campaign "one of the deadliest of the war" as he introduced President Clinton.
"Fifty years ago the invasion of Normandy overshadowed the liberation of Rome," Mr. Shirley said. "And in three days the world's attention will again be centered at Normandy, but for today because of your presence here . . . the Italian campaigns are not forgotten."
Mr. Clinton goes to Britain today, then across the English Channel to Normandy in France, to commemorate D-Day, June 6, 1944.