COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — It was a day of pride, remembrance and honors for those who waded through blood-tinged waves, climbed razor-sharp cliffs or fell from the skies, staring down death or dying in an invasion that portended the fall of the Third Reich and the end of World War II.
It was also a day of high diplomacy for a Europe not completely at peace.
After 70 years, a dwindling number of veterans, civilian survivors of the brutal battle for Normandy, and 19 world leaders and monarchs celebrated on Friday the sacrifices of D-Day, an assault never matched for its size, planning and derring-do.
The events spread across the beaches and lush farmlands of Normandy, in western France, had an added sense of urgency this year: It would be the last grand commemoration for many of the veterans, whether they relived the anniversary at home in silence or were among the some 1,000 who crossed continents to be present despite their frail age.
For President Barack Obama, transmitting the memory of their “longest day” means keeping intact the values that veterans fought and died for.
“When the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory — we helped Europe rebuild,” Obama said in a speech at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It is the site where 9,387 fallen soldiers rest under white marble tombstones on a bluff above Omaha Beach, the bloodiest among five beach landings by U.S. and British troops.
“This was democracy’s beachhead,” he said, assuring veterans that “your legacy is in good hands.”
F-15 jets flew over the cemetery in missing-man formation, a 21 gun salute boomed and taps sounded.
The day of gratitude drew royals including Queen Elizabeth II of England, who dined at the French presidential palace in the evening, and the king of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, as well as political leaders from across Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also joined in, along with a small group of German soldiers, as a sign of European unity.
Both symbolism and pragmatism were on French President Francois Hollande’s agenda. With an invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been elbowed out of G-7 talks a day earlier, the ceremonies also became a moment to try to deflate the tense situation in Ukraine. The West fears the ongoing fighting there could fan a new Cold War with Moscow, which has annexed the eastern Ukraine region of Crimea.
Hollande’s invitation to Ukraine’s president-elect gave impetus to a diplomatic ballet of meetings behind the scenes.
Putin, who was present as a tribute to the Russian loss of more than 20 million troops in WWII — the largest among Allies — met with Petro Poroshenko and Obama on the sidelines of the event. Obama met privately, and briefly, with Putin.
“It is because France itself experienced the barbarity (of war) that it feels a duty to preserve peace everywhere, at the frontiers of Europe as in Africa,” Hollande said.
Dancers re-enacted the drama of the Nazi takeover and battles across Europe against Hitler’s forces on a stage at Sword Beach, one of the landing points near Ouistreham, a small port where British troops landed and fought their way to Pegasus Bridge, a key route. Ouistreham was the site of the main international ceremony.
It was 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, when soldiers started wading ashore. Operation Overlord, as the invasion by U.S., British, Canadian and Polish forces was codenamed, was the first step in breaching Hitler’s stranglehold on France and Europe. Besides Sword and Omaha, Allied forces landed on Utah, Juno and Gold beaches — all codenames.
Ahead of the landing, the U.S. Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion went in with the 5th Battalion Rangers, scaling the craggy cliffs of Point du Hoc to put out of action six 155mm Nazi howitzers that could target landing areas. Paratroopers from the 101st Airborne division jumped into dark skies, some getting lost in hedgerows, shot down or caught in trees.
At least 4,400 Allied troops were killed the first day, and many thousands more in the ensuing Battle of Normandy that opened the Allied march to Paris to liberate the Nazi-occupied French capital in August. Another August assault was launched by forces from North Africa into southern France.
“They left home barely more than boys. They came home heroes,” Obama said at an observation deck in Colleville, overlooking Omaha Beach.
Seven decades later, gratitude for life is a theme that runs through some veterans’ recollections.
“I was lucky I survived,” said U.S. veteran Oscar Peterson, 92, who fought with the 2nd Infantry Division, during his visit to Colleville. At the time, he said “I would say that if I could survive this, I’ll work the rest of my life for nothing to be alive.”
Clair Martin, 93, of San Diego, California, landed on D-Day with the 29th Infantry Division and said he kept fighting until he reached the Elbe River in Germany the following April. “I praise God I made it and that we’ve never had another World War,” he said.
While many of the fallen in the Battle of Normandy — Americans, British, Polish and even Germans — lie in manicured cemeteries, some victims have been largely forgotten — the French.
Allied bombardments killed an estimated 20,000 French civilians, and Hollande paid tribute to them Friday in Caen, largely destroyed in the bombings like many Normandy cities.
The Vichy government which collaborated with the Nazis — and which France took decades to admit represented the state — used the bombings as a propaganda tool, burying the extent of fatalities. Historians now believe that nearly as many French civilians died in Allied air raids as Britons during the German Blitz.
“This battle was also a battle of civilians,” Hollande said. Normandy’s residents “helped the victory happen. They opened their doors to the liberators.”
U.S. veteran Jack Schlegel, 91, of Albany, New York, who fought in the 508th Parachutist Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne, paid tribute to those who survived and are transmitting the D-Day message.
“I love, especially in this area, the patriotism I can see, that you’re so thankful that the Allies … helped liberate this country from the Nazis and giving the younger children a chance to grow up without this oppression.”