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Allies Sail for D-Day Plus 50 : World War II: Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, other leaders join massive flotilla from England to France. President pays homage to those who gave ‘rise to a new era of hope and progress.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II and a shipload of Allied leaders sailed in a massive flotilla late Sunday from this historic English Channel port for France to observe the 50th anniversary of D-day.

En route, the fleet dropped wreaths in the Channel. Two million red poppies, symbolizing remembrance, fluttered down from a low-flying Lancaster bomber. The armada planned to anchor offshore before going on to the five D-day beaches--two American, two British and one Canadian--where the great northern European assault against Nazi forces to end World War II was launched.

In a commemorative message that had overtones of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s message to the troops on D-day, Clinton declared: “The heroic men who fought and died during those difficult days helped to give rise to a new era of hope and progress, starting a trend toward democracy and human dignity that continues to this day.

“The peoples of nations around the world persist in throwing off the shackles of tyranny and in seeking the blessings of liberty. On this historic occasion, we, the benefactors of the freedom won by our courageous armed forces, rededicate ourselves to embracing these epic changes.

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“In memory of all those who lost their lives on Normandy’s shore, we reaffirm our commitment to building a safer, more peaceful world for the generations to come.”

The fleet of ships steamed Sunday afternoon from this main invasion supply port after daylong ceremonies. The seaside was lined with tens of thousands of Britons and Americans, young and old, who turned out to see off the armada heading for Normandy.

They waved farewell to the ships, watching as they moved past concrete forts in the harbor, just as previous generations had done at this ancient navy town.

Many with binoculars could spot the national flags of the warships and call out the identifications to their children.

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A vendor moved among the crowd chanting, “Cockles, mussels, prawns.”

Many families picnicked on the green lawns of the seafront in a festive Sunday outing, listening to radios describing the events.

Clinton boarded the nuclear-powered carrier George Washington--at 97,000 tons, the world’s largest--whose crew he addressed after he was piped aboard in the afternoon.

Earlier, Queen Elizabeth, with many visiting heads of state and government, boarded the royal yacht Britannia to review warships of the Allied nations that participated in the D-day landings June 6, 1944.

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Among those present were British Prime Minister John Major, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Polish President Lech Walesa, Czech President Vaclav Havel, Slovakian President Michal Kovac, Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger, King Harald of Norway, King Albert II of Belgium and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.

They were joined by members of the British Royal Family, including Princess Diana. The yacht arrived in France later to the cheers of thousands of well-wishers.

In contrast to the drenching, cold weather that dampened the spirits of Saturday’s ceremonies, the weather in Portsmouth on Sunday was crisp and clear, though changeable.

The morning began here with a Drumhead Ceremony, which was once the traditional religious observance to bless the colors and uplift the hearts of the soldiers and sailors--"at the point at which troops cannot be pulled back from the battle.”

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by a dozen other clergymen, blessed the fleet that was preparing to leave for Normandy and large-scale, daylong observances and events today.

Senior U.S. military officers, including members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the ceremony--which was also watched by thousands of visitors.

Afterward, the dignitaries boarded the Britannia, a royal-blue vessel with tan funnels and masts. The ship’s crew of 276 includes the band of the Royal Marines, which played to welcome Clinton and his fellow leaders and their spouses.

As an estimated 4,000 small craft, from yachts to dinghies to motor launches, bobbed around the bigger warships, 40 ships participated in the naval review--including the Canberra, a luxury liner that ferried British fighting battalions to the Falkland Islands, and the Fearless, which carried Royal Marine commandos in that action.

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The fleet review was preceded with a flyover by World War II aircraft: an old biplane Swordfish torpedo bomber, British Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane fighters, a U.S. B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, a P-51 Mustang fighter and a C-47 Dakota transport--followed by low-flying modern jet fighters from Allied nations, some forming the number “50.”

Clinton boarded the Jeremiah O’Brien, a World War II Liberty ship that made 11 Channel crossings during the invasion. Taken out of mothballs, it had sailed from San Francisco last month with a volunteer crew of veteran merchant seamen on board.

About 20 minutes before Clinton boarded the George Washington, Capt. Robert Sprigg told the crew over the loudspeaker that listening to the President was “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I hope to see you there. I encourage everybody, I mean everybody, to go and hear his own ideas and what he’d like to say to you.”

On board, the President, apparently seeking to show his support for the armed forces, told the crew: “You are, beyond question, the best-trained, the best-equipped fighting force the world has ever known. And I want you to know that I am committed unequivocally, absolutely, to ensuring that you continue to have what you need to do your job. You deserve it. Our security demands it.”

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Clinton added: “The strength of our military is not really in our ships, our tanks or our aircraft, it is in you--the dedicated professionalism of the men and women of the United States armed forces.”

That remark was greeted by applause, as was the President’s statement to the sailors that the downsizing of the military was now halfway finished and would be completed in two years.

“If we learned any lesson from the magnificent, heroic, almost unbelievable endeavor of D-day,” Clinton said, “it was that if the Allies would stay together and stay strong, we would never need another D-day. That is what you are guaranteeing. And your country is deeply in your debt.”

As for his own feelings about D-day during his trip so far, the President added: “You know what encapsulates this all for me? Eisenhower’s words, in which he said that D-day was ‘the fury of an aroused democracy.’ Those words say it all.”

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