PORTSMOUTH, England -- The aircraft carrier USS George Washington awaited its D-Day-plus-50 mission anchored offshore with a crew of 6,000 sailors mostly too young to remember much about World War II and with a dozen passengers too proud to forget.
The flagship of the U.S. D-Day Fleet, the George Washington will carry President Clinton across the English Channel today in a symbolic re-enactment of the 1944 invasion.
Off the coast of Normandy, Mr. Clinton will cast a wreath onto the waters in honor of men lost at sea during the landings.
The George Washington brought the memorial wreath, a 70-inch circle of roses and carnations made of blue silk, from Norfolk, Va., its home port. The carrier also brought 12 World War II veterans along on its first deployment since its commissioning in 1992.
Veterans who were relatives of the George Washington's crew members were offered berths on the D-Day cruise.
"It's like being on a big tour," said Tom Dobinski, 69, from Odenton, Md. His son-in-law, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Ford, is a flag intelligence officer on the George Washington.
"Absolutely, terrifically outstanding," he said. "The crew couldn't have been friendlier, and the chow's been great."
Mr. Dobinski missed D-Day but got to Europe in time for some hairy days during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive before the surrender. He was looking forward to the ceremonies with the president.
"It's going to be a solemn display," he said. "It's a thing that needs to be remembered. A lot of the people on the ship weren't even born then."
Most, in fact, were born far later: the average age of the crew is 24.
"I don't think you can know enough about it," Mr. Dobinski said. "History gets rewritten every day. People today don't really know what happened or really understand. They need to understand World War II."
Mr. Dobinski spent 22 years in the Army. He retired in 1965 from Fort Meade, then worked another 21 years for the 3M corporation.
He wore a cap from the Society of the Ruptured Duck, a bunch of old soldiers who hang out at the Junction Restaurant in Odenton. (For all the 24-year-olds, World War II vets called the eagle pin they got on discharge "the ruptured duck.")
The George Washington, the Navy's newest and largest nuclear carrier, appeared out of the mist Thursday morning like a massive island newly arisen in a stretch of water called the Spithead. Local craft began swarming about the "GW" like egrets around a water buffalo.
"We're delighted to be here," said Rear Adm. Alexander J. Krekich, commander of the George Washington Battle Group.
"The crew's excited about what we are about to participate in," he said, "and the honor of having the commander-in-chief aboard."
Colin Harris, a 21-year-old sailor from Dundalk, Md., pretty much agreed with the Admiral Krekich.
"It's neat," he said. "A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
He and his buddy, Arturo Villanueva, a jet mechanic from Los Angeles, were on their way to liberty in London. They wanted to sleep in a hotel bed, eat a good meal and hear some Techno-rock music.
"When I get older, I can tell my kids I was part of the 50th anniversary of D-Day," Mr. Villanueva said.
He's just the average age of the GW crew, 24. They're a little light on knowledge of World War II, which is more or less ancient history.
Mr. Harris put it succinctly: "My grandfather was in the Army during the Korean War."
He doesn't remember being taught a lot about D-Day at Dundalk High School, from which he graduated in 1991. "I heard about D-Day," he said. "I knew D-Day was in France. That's about it."