OMAHA BEACH, France – With silent remembrance and respect, nations honored the fallen and the singular bravery of all Allied troops who sloshed through bloodied water to the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago on D-Day, the assault that portended the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich.
French President Emmanuel Macron and President Donald Trump praised the soldiers, sailors and airmen, the survivors and those who lost their lives, in powerful speeches Thursday that credited the June 6, 1944, surprise air and sea operation that brought tens of thousands of men to Normandy, each not knowing whether he would survive the day.
“You are the pride of our nation, you are the glory of our republic, and we thank you from the bottom of our heart,” Trump said, of the warriors engaged in the ultimate fight of good against evil in World War II.
Macron praised their courage, generosity and strength of spirit that made them press on “to help men and women they didn’t know, to liberate a land most hadn’t seen before, for no other cause but freedom, democracy.”
He expressed France’s debt to the United States for freeing his country from the reign of the Nazis. Macron awarded five American veterans with the Chevalier of Legion of Honor, France’s highest award.
“We know what we owe to you, veterans, our freedom,” he said, switching from French to English. “On behalf of my nation I just want to say `thank you.“’
D-Day was history’s largest air and sea invasion, involving around 160,000 troops on that day itself and many more in the ensuing Battle of Normandy. Of those 73,000 were from the United States, while 83,000 were from Britain and Canada. Troops started landing overnight from the air, then were joined by a massive force by sea on the beaches code-named Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats.
The second day of ceremonies moved to France after spirited commemorations a day earlier in Portsmouth, England, the main embarkation point for the transport boats.
Leaders, veterans, their families and the grateful from France, Europe and elsewhere were present for the solemn day that began under a radiant sun.
At dawn, hundreds of people, civilians and military alike, hailing from around the world, gathered at the water’s edge to remember the troops who stormed the fortified Normandy beaches to help turn the tide of the war and give birth to a new Europe.
Dick Jansen, 60, from the Netherlands, drank Canadian whisky from an enamel cup on the water’s edge. Others scattered carnations into the waves. Randall Atanay, the son of a medic who tended to the dying and wounded, waded barefoot into the water near Omaha Beach, where the waters ran red on D-Day.
Up to 12,000 people gathered hours later at the ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery, where Macron and Trump spoke. U.S. veterans, their numbers fast diminishing as years pass, were the guests of honor.
A 21-gun salute thundered into the waters below the cemetery, on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, and across the rows of white crosses and Stars of David. The final resting places of more than 9,380 of the fallen stretched out before the guests.
Britain’s Prince Charles, his wife, Camilla, and Prime Minister Theresa May attended a remembrance service at the medieval cathedral in Bayeux, the first Normandy town liberated by Allied troops after D-Day. Cardinal Marc Ouellet read a message from Pope Francis honoring those who “gave their lives for freedom and peace.”
Hundreds of people packed the seaside square in the town of Arromanches to applaud veterans of the Battle of Normandy. A wreath was placed outside the town’s D-Day Museum.
At daybreak, a lone piper played in Mulberry Harbor, exactly 75 years after British troops came ashore at Gold Beach.
“It is sobering, surreal to be able to stand here on this beach and admire the beautiful sunrise where they came ashore, being shot at, facing unspeakable atrocities,” said 44-year-old former U.S. paratrooper Richard Clapp, of Julian, North Carolina.
Gratitude was a powerful common theme.
Macron thanked those who did not survive the assault “so that France could become free again” at an earlier ceremony overlooking Gold Beach with May and uniformed veterans to lay the cornerstone of a memorial that will record the names of thousands of troops under British command who died on D-Day and the ensuing Battle of Normandy.
“If one day can be said to have determined the fate of generations to come, in France, in Britain, in Europe and the world, that day was the 6th of June, 1944,” May said.
As the sun rose that morning, not one of the thousands of men arriving in Normandy “knew whether they would still be alive when the sun set once again,” she said.
Passing on memories is especially urgent, with hundreds of World War II veterans now dying every day.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hailed those who sacrificed their lives on the Normandy beaches for future generations, “for you and me.”
Speaking at Juno Beach where 14,000 Canadians landed, Trudeau said they “took a gamble the world had never seen before.”
He lauded the resulting world order including the United Nations and NATO that have helped preserve peace and called it “the responsibility of all Canadians to ensure that their story and their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”
A group of five Americans parachuted into Normandy on Wednesday as part of a commemorative jump and showed up on the beach Thursday morning still wearing their jumpsuits, all World War II-era uniforms, and carrying an American flag. The group included Clapp, and all five expressed concern the feats and sacrifices of D-Day are being forgotten.
“If you forget history, it’s doomed to repeat itself,” Clapp said.
“I have all kinds of friends buried,” said 98-year-old William Tymchuk, who served with the 4th Canadian Armored Division during some of the deadliest fighting after the Normandy landings.
“They were young. They got killed. They couldn’t come home,” he added.
Then Tymchuk teared up.
“Sorry,” he said. “They couldn’t even know what life is all about.”
The D-Day invasion was a defining moment of military strategy confounded by unpredictable weather and human chaos in which soldiers from the U.S., Britain, Canada and other Allied nations applied relentless bravery to carve out a beachhead on ground that Nazi Germany had occupied for four years.
“The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory,” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower predicted in his order of the day.
The Battle of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord, hastened Germany’s defeat less than a year later.
Still, that single day cost the lives of 4,414 Allied troops, 2,501 of them Americans. More than 5,000 were injured. On the German side, several thousand were killed or wounded.
From there, Allied troops would advance their fight, take Paris in late summer and march in a race with the Soviet Red Army to control as much German territory as possible by the time Adolf Hitler died in his Berlin bunker and Germany surrendered in May 1945.
The Soviet Union also fought valiantly against the Nazis – and lost more people than any other nation in World War II – but those final battles would divide Europe for decades between the West and the Soviet-controlled East, the face-off line of the Cold War.
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