"Remember the Maine," the rallying cry that led the United States into a war with Spain, was intoned once again yesterday as more than a hundred gathered to mark the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking in Havana harbor.

This time, the words were a mournful cry in memory of the 266 American sailors and Marines who perished in the explosion and sinking.

Yesterday, beneath a bright blue sky, Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton and descendants of the ship's crew members walked to a hilltop in Arlington National Cemetery where the mast of the sunken ship is the centerpiece of the USS Maine Memorial. The name of each victim is etched on the stone of the memorial. The graves of 228 Maine crew members are nearby.

"We are gathered at a location which few Americans even know exists," retired Rear Adm. Morton E. Toole said. "But in its day, this was as sacred as the Vietnam Memorial wall is today."

The USS Maine, bristling with heavy guns that made it one of the premier battleships in the Navy, was dispatched to Cuba in January 1898, ostensibly on a goodwill visit. But it was also to protect Americans on the island in the wake of increased friction between the United States and Spain. Cuba, then part of the Spanish empire, had been the scene of some insurgency by Cuban rebels.

On Feb. 15, 1898, at 9:41 p.m., as the 319-foot-long Maine lay moored in the harbor, Havana was illuminated by a burst of bright light. The Maine was shattered by a prolonged explosion that sent debris into the air and filled the sky with black smoke. Less than one-fourth of the 350 crew members on board survived the explosion; the rest were blown apart, crushed, drowned or suffocated.

Public opinion fixed blame for the explosion on Spain, and "Remember the Maine" soon became the cry of American newspapers, particularly William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. The United States declared war on Spain in April 1898. American victories in Cuba and the Philippines marked the emergence of the United States as a world power.

But there were always doubts that the sinking of the Maine was anything but an accident. An inquiry ordered by Adm. Hyman Rickover and conducted by historians and engineers in the mid-1970s concluded that a mine or torpedo could not have been responsible for the blast. The likely cause was a coal bunker fire that ignited the ship's magazine. Some still insist that the Maine was a victim of sabotage.

Speakers at yesterday's ceremonies said the debate is no longer relevant. "It makes no difference whether the explosion was caused internally by coal or externally by a mine," Toole said. "The fact is 266 Americans died."

Wreaths were placed on three of the graves surrounding the USS Maine Memorial. One was laid on the grave of Sgt. James T. Brown, the senior Marine killed on the battleship; the second on the grave of Chief Yeoman James M. League, an Annapolis native; and the third on a joint grave that holds the remains of four unknown victims. Thirty-two descendants of League's, most of whom still live in Maryland, were among those who attended the ceremony. "We usually have a reunion every year, but this is the first time we've all assembled to come to the memorial," said Patsy Mills, 67, who retired as secretary of the Somerset County Board and is one of League's great-granddaughters. "My grandmother always talked about him, how he was a warrant officer and they found him in his bunk," Mills said. "When we were little, my parents always brought us to this monument, to see all the names."

Margaret Daly, 81, a granddaughter of Brown's who lives in New York City, dabbed her eyes with a tissue after helping lay a wreath on her grandfather's grave. "A lot of people don't even know what it's all about," Daly said. Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report. CAPTION: The crowd comes to attention at the presentation of the colors at a service in Arlington National Cemetery marking the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking. CAPTION: Kelly Jaeger retrieves his hat after taking a photo of relatives of Sgt. James T. Brown, who died on the USS Maine.