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President Clinton, in the first commemorative event of his European trip to mark the 50th anniversary of D-Day, visited an American military cemetery Friday and promised World War II veterans that his generation will build the peace and freedom they had fought to defend.

Speaking at a ceremony against the peaceful background of 7,862 graves marked with white marble crosses and Stars of David, the 47-year-old president thanked the vets for their generation's sacrifice and pledged unspecified efforts to complete their task.The "driving spirit of common cause" that infused GIs who stormed ashore at nearby Anzio beach on Jan. 22, 1944, and liberated Rome on June 4, 1944, fanned a "confidence in unity and an unselfish willingness to help one another" that inspires Americans still, Clinton said.

"The spirit of common cause did not die here," said Clinton, the first American president born since World War II.

Clinton drew on last-minute research by White House aides to publicly recall for the first time his father's U.S. Army service in Italy during World War II.

"I have been told a story by my cousin about my own father who served here in Italy," Clinton said. "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.

"My father had only sad news to send back. There were no leaves. Every one had been stripped by the fury of the battle."

Clinton's father, William Jefferson Blythe III, was stationed near Naples, about 100 miles south of here. After the war, he died in an automobile accident in Missouri three months before Clinton was born in Hope, Ark. Clinton subsequently adopted the family name of his stepfather, Roger Clinton.

The postwar generation will honor the sacrifices of World War II, the president said. "And then we must go forward, for our job is not only to praise their deeds but to pursue their dreams, not only to recall their sacrifices for freedom but to renew freedom's promise once again," Clinton said.

Clinton added: "We are the sons and daughters of the world they saved. Now our moment for common cause has come. It is up to us to ensure a world of peace and prosperity for yet another generation."

The cemetery, located on 77 acres in a former vineyard on the shores of the Mediterranean 38 miles outside Rome, is the final resting place for a small fraction of the GIs who died in the Allied campaign that slogged up the boot of Italy from the landings in Sicily in July, 1943, Salerno in September, 1943 and Anzio on January 22, 1944.

"We stand today in fields forever scarred by sacrifice," the president said. "Today it is hard to imagine that this is now a peaceful place, it is lush with the pines and the cypress. But 50 years ago when freedom was in peril, this field ran with the blood of those who fought to save the world."

Of the buried, 490 were unknown. The names of 3,000 other GIs missing in action are inscribed in the chapel. Twenty-one sets of brothers are buried here, side by side, including two sets of twins.

Each grave marker was decorated with an American flag, an Italian flag and a carnation laid upon the carpet-clean grass.

A 21-gun salute rolled thunderous concussions through the trees and three waves of aircraft streaked low across a solemn gray sky looming with threatening rain clouds.

John Shirley, 69, of Livermore, Calif., president of the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division, which fought at Anzio, used his introduction of the president to emphasize the importance of the often-forgotten Allied campaign in Italy.

"I wanted to tell people why we fought and why we died here," said Shirley, a retired veterinarian who attended the University of California at Davis, Calif., on the GI Bill after the war.

"Veterans of this campaign feel like Normandy gets all the attention. We fought and died here for good reason," said Shirley, who won a battlefield commission and the Silver Star and two Bronze stars during combat that took him from the beaches of Anzio to the invasion of southern France later in 1944 and as part of the first American division to reach the Rhine.

Shirley said he bore no grudges against Clinton for not serving in the armed forces. "Times change," Shirley said. "I hope the day comes when our presidents have never had to serve in the military or fought in a war."

Among those attending the ceremony were four members of Congress who served in Italy: Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kan.; Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii; Claiborne Pell, D-R.I.; and Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.

Both Dole and Inouye were wounded in Italy. Dole's right shoulder was shattered by German machine-gun fire, and Inouye lost his right arm to a grenade.