COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France // A “humbled” US president Barack Obama led an emotional tribute on Friday to the thousands of troops who gave their lives to liberate Europe from Nazism, on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings that “shaped the security and well-being of all posterity”.
Speaking at Omaha Beach in front of veterans in military uniforms complete with medals, Mr Obama said that their sacrifice and bravery had breached “Hitler’s Wall” and secured today’s era of democracy and freedom.
“By the end of that longest day, this beach had been fought, lost, refought and won – a piece of Europe once again liberated and free. Hitler’s Wall was breached, letting loose Patton’s Army to pour into France,” said Mr Obama, visibly moved, in a speech interrupted by a lengthy standing ovation.
“Gentlemen, we are truly humbled by your presence today,” he told the veterans, many of whom, well into their 80s, were confined to wheelchairs and.
“Omaha – Normandy – this was democracy’s beachhead. And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all posterity.”
After his speech, Mr Obama warmly embraced a stooped veteran almost half his size before bowing his head alongside the French president Francois Hollande at a wreath commemorating the thousands that fell on June 6, 1944.
The two leaders then stood, hands on heart, with saluting veterans standing to attention behind them as a lone bugler sounded out and jets roared a fly-past through a gloriously blue sky.
For his part, Mr Hollande said France would “never forget what it owes the United States”.
“This day, which began in chaos and fire, would end in blood and tears, tears and pain, tears and joy at the end of 24 hours that changed the world and forever marked Normandy,” he said as he opened the ceremonies.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who at the age of 88 is making a rare foreign trip, led a service at Bayeux cemetery where nearly 5,000 Commonwealth troops are buried.
Some 20 heads of states, royals and prime ministers were to mingle with veterans throughout the day at ceremonies on the beaches of northern France, where the biggest amphibious assault in history was launched in 1944.
Dignitaries gathered for lunch at a grand chateau in Caen before heading to the beaches for a solemn international ceremony.
Away from the diplomacy, veterans marked the occasion with humility.
One British veteran, 89-year-old Ken Godfrey, was applauded by well-wishers who shouted “bravo” and “thank you” as, medals clinking on his chest, he walked the mile-long path to Bayeux cemetery.
“My main memory is wading through the sea with water up to my chest,” he said. “But I don’t like to talk about the fighting. If people ask, I just say we had a hairy time. But I’m lucky that I survived.”
Bob Cowper, 91, a wheelchair-bound former Australian fighter pilot, he flew over the beaches on D-Day as the fighting raged below.
“Looking down, even though we were making a contribution, I remember feeling empathy for all the poor buggers fighting on the ground.”
It was Mr Cowper’s first trip back to the beaches where he saw so many comrades cut down but he beamed with pride at being present at the ceremonies.
“It’s wonderful as an old man of 91 – it’s like coming home.”
* Agence France Presse