A 21-one gun salute echoed over Key West Sunday morning as dignitaries remembered the Maine, the U.S. battleship that mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor 100 years ago, sparking the Spanish-American War and catapulting the United States onto the world stage.

U.S. Navy and Marine Honor guards hoisted a flag over the refurbished cemetery plot where 24 sailors from the 324-foot warship were brought for burial after the disaster. Little girls escorted by Navy cadets laid daisies on the graves, covered this week with fresh sod.The Maine explosion on Feb. 15, 1898, killed at least 266 sailors, almost half its crew. The newspapers' rallying cry, "Remember the Maine!" gave President William McKinley the justification he needed to make war on Spain.

During the 144-day "splendid little war," as it was dubbed by John Hay, then ambassador to Britain, the United States seized control of Spanish colonies from the Philippines to Puerto Rico and Cuba. The victory set the stage for decades of U.S. gunboat diplomacy in the Caribbean basin and gave the United States an Asian stronghold during World War II.

After the explosion, dead and injured sailors were taken to Key West, 90 miles from Cuba and the Maine's last port of call in North America.

The destruction of what was then the most powerful ship in the U.S. fleet not only marked the emergence of the United States as a major power but "foreshadowed the conflicts that would confront our young nation thereafter," Assistant Navy Secretary William Cassidy said during Sunday's memorial.

The Navy spent $200,000 sprucing up the Maine sailors' burial plot after an intense lobbying campaign by historians and retired seamen, who complained that bureaucrats in Washington were forgetting about the dead buried in Key West.

Most of the Maine victims are buried at Arlington National Cemetery on the hillsides surrounding the Pentagon.

"We just pushed for them to remember the dead," said Warren Johnson of the Navy League chapter in Key West, a civilian organization suporting the Navy.