Wearing a cap adorned with a miniature destroyer and the anchor of a chief petty officer, Al Klingenberg clutched a six-foot banner heralding the arrival of the Tin Can Sailors and proudly explained why 40 old guys from New Jersey trudged to Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday, eager to salute.

"This is something we could not miss," Klingenberg, 69, said as a chilling wind slammed into his banner. "We all still feel very patriotic, and we're all glad they decided to honor the memory of sailors who have served this country. It's about time."

Nearly 200 years after Pierre L'Enfant first suggested the idea, and a decade since planning officially began, the U.S. Navy Memorial was dedicated yesterday on Pennsylvania Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW.

It was the Navy's 212th birthday, and 10,000 people -- including hundreds gazing from office-building windows -- watched the two-hour ceremony that featured dozens of Navy songs, hundreds of flags, thousands of balloons and fireworks, and a 21-gun salute.

Speaking from a balcony at the National Archives, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger said the memorial "enshrines the gratitude of a nation" to the millions of men and women who have served in the Navy.

James H. Webb Jr., secretary of the Navy, asked the crowd to remember the sacrifices past and present sailors have made to protect the security of the United States. "We don't send a naval force into a crisis, and we don't send ships," he said. "We send people. This memorial commemorates them."

Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Adm. Carlisle A.H. Trost, chief of naval operations; and former U.S. senator John Tower, a retired Navy reservist and chairman of the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation, also offered a brief tribute to the Navy.

The memorial, a $12 million project financed entirely by about 84,000 private contributors, features a 100-foot circular granite plaza constructed into a map of the world. The map is surrounded by fountains, an amphitheater and seven-foot bronze "Lone Sailor" statue by Stanley Bleifeld. Two 75-foot, flag-draped ship's masts stand at the entrance to the plaza. The second part of the memorial, expected to be completed in 1989, will feature a visitors' center.

In addition to the other pageantry, eight Navy musical organizations and five ceremonial guard groups participated in yesterday's ceremony. About 75 reunion groups, representing an assortment of states, ships and wartime assignments, and more than 6,000 Navy veterans came to see the dedication.

"This is indeed a special day," said 72-year-old Richard Hoffman, a 40-year Navy veteran who flew alone from Los Angeles just to be part of the crowd. Hoffman, whose 10 gold service stripes on his jacket attracted many curious admirers, was an equipment operator and chief petty officer.

During patriotic anthems, Hoffman stood, snapped his heels together and saluted with a solemn stare. "This memorial has been a long time coming. I felt I had to be here," he said.

As did the Tin Can Sailors of New Jersey, named after the Navy's nickname for a destroyer and one of the many groups of Navy veterans in attendance. "I spent seven years in the Navy, five during World War II," Klingenberg said. "I was in the Atlantic, the Pacific, on destroyers, battleships, submarines, you name it. And I'm glad we've finally recognized all the sailors who were left behind out there."

Near the end of the ceremony, water collected from the Earth's seven seas was poured into the memorial's fountains, and a wreath was placed at the entrance to the plaza.

Evelyn Stocki of Baltimore, whose son Raymond died while serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War, cried quietly as the wreath was set on the ground.

"I'm just proud that this has been done," Stocki said. "Future generations now have something to recognize the service these people have given to the country -- and so many with their lives."