ATSUGI NAVAL AIR FACILITY, Japan (AP) _ The peace treaty was still a few days away, but when Gen. Douglas MacArthur stepped off his plane here 50 years ago today, that was little more than a formality. World War II was over.

So, while President Clinton and other VIPs prepared for this weekend's surrender-signing commemoration in Hawaii, a few dozen veterans of MacArthur's historic landing gathered here instead for one last remembrance.

``I had always wanted to come back,'' said Alan Eisenmann, 67, of Mayfield Heights, Ohio. ``It is amazing what has happened to this country over the past 50 years.''

Most historians agree that the American-led administration from the end of the war in 1945 to 1952 _ this country's first ever foreign occupation _ helped speed changes in the government and society that have been crucial to Japan's tremendous postwar economic successes.

For the first wave of GIs flown in to secure a foothold on the Japanese mainland, however, the primary concern was survival.

``It was terrible weather during the flight over, and I was wondering if we'd ever find the place,'' said Paul Godsman, 76, of Denver. ``But once we got on the ground and nothing happened, everybody relaxed.''

To mark the anniversary of the landing, a ceremony in MacArthur's honor was held in the newly dedicated ``MacArthur Garden'' at this former training ground for Japanese Imperial Navy pilots.

A rebellion by Japanese pilots here against Tokyo's decision to surrender forced a two-day delay in MacArthur's arrival. The intense hatred built up during the war dissipated with surprising speed after the war's end, however.

MacArthur's relatively evenhanded administration of the occupation, and his flair for the dramatic, won him a widespread respect among the Japanese _ an emotion many older Japanese hold to this day.

Along with speeches by the veterans, today's anniversary commemoration also featured the unveiling of a statue of MacArthur donated by a local Japanese businessman.

``I felt that this was something that I just had to do,'' said Kenkichi Takahashi, the 66-year-old cement company president. ``Japan owes MacArthur a great debt.''

Though unable to attend, MacArthur's widow sent a letter, which was read at a reception later today. About 200 people, about half of them Japanese, attended the ceremony.

Atsugi is still used by the Japanese navy. But, under a joint use agreement, it has also become one of the United States' most important naval air facilities in the Pacific. About 8,000 U.S. military personnel and their family members are stationed here.