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HONOLULU -- In opening the 50th Anniversary of V-J Day ceremonies yesterday, President Clinton made clear that the once-vengeful phrase, "Remember Pearl Harbor," has taken on an entirely new meaning.

Fifty years ago, it was a call to arms. It was immortalized in patriotic songs and inspired thousands of Americans to enlist to wreak vengeance on the Japanese.

Now, as veterans age and the war fades into history books, it is important to many simply to remember. And to honor.

Remember what happened at Pearl Harbor. Remember what caused tensions between the two countries to explode beyond the breaking point. And remember not only that Americans fought bravely, that 100,000 American Marines, airmen, soldiers and sailors died in the Pacific, but remember why.

"You fought against tyranny," Mr. Clinton told an estimated 8,000 World War II veterans, assembled along with defense officials from around the world and U.S. military personnel at Wheeler Army Air Field,which was decimated by Japanese fighter planes in the surprise attack. "We will never forget your fight for our freedom."

War, Mr. Clinton recalled one veteran writing home, is the most horrible thing ever done by man. "Because you were willing to undergo the most horrible thing ever done by man, freedom is the order of the day in most of the world 50 years later," the president said.

Mr. Clinton, who received less applause than the vets when they stood to be recognized, recounted the Pacific battles.

"Then, the enemy believed Americans would not fight or sacrifice for islands they had never heard of. They were wrong," Mr. Clinton said. "Americans turned to one another in the fight for freedom. . . . They got the job done."

Mr. Clinton said that Pearl Harbor and the remote Pacific battles united the diverse country in a way it never had been before, or since. That spirit, that sense of mission, won the war. And, when the war was done, won the peace.

"You did not turn your back on the world," Mr. Clinton said.

Many of the vets milling around the VIP camouflage tent before Mr. Clinton's address remember the war for different reasons.

"I think everyone should be constantly reminded of what we went through. That it wasn't in vain," said Rep. Bob Stump, an Arizona Republican who joined the Navy when he was barely 16 and fought in Pacific island campaigns.

Now chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and leading a delegation of 14 members of Congress, Mr. Stump said he best remembers what happened by making sure the country is prepared for tomorrow: "If we don't have ample defense, we don't have a country."

For Dick Villard, 69, who moved from Boston to Hawaii, remembering the war is important. Not to glory in the stories of warrior daring but to learn from the brutality.

"You often wonder what war is all about. Back then, being 18, 19, you just go along with the flow and you want to be a hero," Mr. Villard said. "But in simple terms, war is for the young. The innocent. And the innocent suffer."

Mr. Villard followed the war with maps on his bedroom wall before joining the Army Air Corps as a B-24 nose gunner. Soon, he was flying bombing runs over Formosa, Borneo, Saigon, the Philippines.

Once, while flying in formation, he saw his friend shot in the nose turret of the next plane. The crew dragged his wounded friend out of the turret and opened the bomb doors so they could all bail out. But before they could strap him into a parachute, the plane jolted and the wounded man fell to his death.

From 10,000 feet, war was an impersonal thing for Mr. Villard. He didn't see the faces, the houses burn. Now, decorated with a chest full of ribbons and medals, that's all he sees. "The way we fought, the mass bombings, the atomic bomb, we killed more civilians than we did soldiers."

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