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On a Veteran's Day of remembrance spanning generations, President Clinton saluted the crew members of the USS Cole for heroism and sacrifice, and broke ground for a national memorial honoring Americans for their service at home and abroad during World War II.

The president also told an audience at Arlington National Cemetery that he will use his historic trip to communist Vietnam this week to heal old wounds and press for a full accounting of missing Americans.

At Arlington, Clinton cited the stalemated presidential election, saying the country honored its veterans ``by cherishing with all our hearts the freedoms they paid such a price to defend.''

To laughter from the crowd, he said: ``If ever there was a doubt about the value of citizenship and each individual's exercise of the freedom of citizenship to vote, this week's election certainly put it to rest.''

Applause greeted 23 officers and crew members from the Cole when they stood at Clinton's request during the ceremony at the Memorial Amphitheater. The guided-missile destroyer was bombed in a suspected terrorist attack while in a Yemeni port on Oct. 12. The blast killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others.

Three of the dead were interred at Arlington in the past few weeks. Addressing the families of those killed, the president said, "We are grateful  for the quiet, heroic service of your loved ones. Now they are in God's care. We mourn their loss, and we shall not rest until those who carried out this cruel act are held to account.''

Clinton then went to the National Mall where he and his rival in the 1996 presidential race, former Sen. Robert J. Dole - joined by World War II veterans and officials - used 56 gold-painted shovels to symbolically break ground for the $100 million memorial. It is to honor Americans who served in uniform during the war and supported the war effort at home.

'With this memorial we secure the memory of 16 million Americans, men and women who took up arms in the greatest struggle humanity has ever known,''  the president told a crowd of several thousand people. ``We hallow the ground for more than 400,000 who never came home.''

"The ground we break today is not only a timeless to the bravery and honor of one generation, but a challenge to every generation that follows,'' he said.

Dole, wounded in Europe during the war, spoke a few moments earlier. "For some, inevitably this memorial will be a place to mourn,'' he said. "For millions of others this will be a place to learn and reflect and draw inspiration.''

At Arlington, the president praised survivors of the Cole for their bravery after the attack, which blew a massive hole in the ship - an image flashed around the world.

"What we couldn't see were that entire compartments were flooded, hatches blown open, doorways bent, parts of the top deck buckled. So, in addition to finding and bringing home the dead and the wounded, the surviving crew had to save their ship,'' Clinton said.

The president, speaking under a white marble-arched arcade in the open air arena where American flags hung between each marble pillar, also mentioned his upcoming trip to Vietnam. He is scheduled to depart Washington on Monday and begin his visit to the communist country on Thursday - a first for a U.S. president since the war's end in 1975.

"Over the past decade we have moved, step by step, toward normalized relations with Vietnam, based on one central priority: gaining the fullest possible accounting of American prisoners of war and Americans missing in action in southeast Asia,'' Clinton said.

"Continuing cooperation on these issues is on the top of my agenda for this trip.''

The new World War II memorial occupies a 7.4 acre tree-bordered plot at  the crossroads of the mall, facing the Washington Monument to the east and the Lincoln Memorial down a long reflecting pool to the west.

Because construction will not actually begin until next spring, Clinton and the others turned soil in a long wood-sided container that fronted the speaker's platform.

Officials said that they aim to dedicate the completed memorial on Memorial Day 2003.

The memorial would have 56 pillars, each 17 feet high, and two large pools surrounding a sunken plaza, and fountains to provide a rainbow effect on sunny days. Visitors would enter through two 41-foot-tall arches. A wall of gold stars would represent veterans killed in the war.

Critics have contended that the memorial's design was confusing and that the structure would mar the views of the famed memorials honoring Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, a claim that the monument's designers deny.

The American Battle Monuments Commission, which organized the design process, says the war was the country's defining experience in the 20th century and a memorial merits such a prominent site.

Posted: 11 November 2000