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COURSEULLES-SUR-MER, France -- Grayed with age but standing proud, nearly 700 Canadian veterans who fought their way ashore in the D-Day offensive to free France from the Nazis returned 59 years later Friday to open the first Normandy memorial to their sacrifice.
For decades, the strip of sand on the Atlantic Ocean code-named Juno Beach -- where 21,000 Canadians landed June 6, 1944 -- has been overshadowed by nearby Omaha Beach, the bloodiest D-Day battle site.
The new monument at Juno is meant as testimony to the sacrifices of all Canadians -- both on the battlefield and at home -- during World War II.
"Until now, there has been no Canadian memorial to mark these achievements," Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said at Friday's ceremony unveiling an information center and an 8-foot-tall bronze sculpture.
"At the Juno Beach Center, our grandchildren and their grandchildren will learn what their forebears did for freedom."
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said, "Every year on these beaches the French people honor the liberators."
Rosslyn Hill, of Smith Falls, Ontario, cried as bagpipers played the same eerie tunes that fired up the troops as they approached the Juno beachhead.
"The Germans really knew how to fight. We took a pretty bad beating," said Hill, 79, who landed in the first assault wave at Juno.
He lost more than two-thirds of his company on D-Day. A total of nearly 1,000 Canadians died that day.
"The only thing I remember are all the deaths," Hill said.
Canadian paratroopers jumped from a plane above the landing site Friday, unfurling a giant Canadian flag as they fell. From helicopters, 43,000 poppy flowers were dropped over the site -- one for each Canadian soldier who died in the war.
The streets of Normandy towns and villages were lined with American, British, Canadian and French flags. One shop window displayed a sticker saying, "We welcome our liberators."
D-Day marked the first breach in Hitler's Atlantic wall, and eventually led to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Canadian troops led the assault at Juno, U.S. forces stormed Utah and Omaha beaches and British soldiers led an attack on Gold and Sword beaches.
American veterans, choir singers and tourists came together Friday at the Normandy American Cemetery in nearby Colleville-sur-Mer to honor the U.S. troops.
"I needed to see the beaches, to feel close to the ... friends I lost here," said Bob Henricks, 80, displaying the medals he earned as a military intelligence officer during World War II.
Henricks, of suburban Philadelphia, and other veterans helped lay wreaths at the cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Juno center, which overlooks the beach, is a metal and glass structure in the shape of a maple leaf -- the Canadian symbol. The center also commemorates a failed August 1942 assault by some 6,000 Allied troops -- mostly Canadians -- on the Normandy coast, two years before D-Day.
The plan was to test German defenses by briefly invading northern Dieppe and then retreating back to Britain. But the Germans were ready and killed about 1,400 soldiers and wounded 1,600 others.
The center "is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me," said John Sanders, 82, of Port Colborne, Ontario, who landed here on D-Day. "It puts my memories to rest."