Leaders honor D-Day vets

Monday, June 7, 2004

ARROMANCHES, France -- Near the five beaches where waves of Allied soldiers stormed ashore 60 years ago, world leaders put aside their differences Sunday to commemorate the D-Day invasion that broke Nazi Germany's grip on continental Europe.

President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac used the opportunity to reinvigorate the flagging U.S.-European bond cemented during World War II.

Chirac, a leading critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thanked America for its part in the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, one of the boldest military operations ever and one that led to the defeat of Adolf Hitler.

"France will never forget," Chirac said. "It will never forget those men who made the supreme sacrifice to liberate our soil, our native land, our continent, from the yoke of Nazi barbarity and its murderous folly.

"Nor will it ever forget its debt to America, its everlasting friend."

Earlier, Chirac welcomed Bush at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, where 9,387 fallen U.S. service members are buried. There, Bush tried to ease the strain in the trans-Atlantic alliance.

"The nations that battled across the continent would become trusted partners in the cause of peace. And our great alliance of freedom is strong, and it is still needed today," Bush said. "America would do it again for our friends."

Under sunny skies, Chirac pinned Legion of Honor medals on veterans from 14 nations in a pomp-filled ceremony at Arromanches, near the midpoint of the five code-named beaches where about 156,000 Allied soldiers stormed in from the English Channel.

As Allied flags fluttered in the wind, Chirac, Bush and leaders of more than a dozen countries and hundreds of dignitaries gave a standing ovation to the veterans, ranging in age from 79 to 94.

"To you, on behalf of all French men and women, on behalf of all the heads of state and government gathered here today and of all freedom-loving people, I express our gratitude, our pride and our admiration," Chirac said in a passionate speech to the former combatants.

The world leaders attending the festivities included Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- the first German leader to attend a D-Day commemoration in Normandy. Britain's Queen Elizabeth II also attended.

Schroeder's participation symbolized Germany's transformation from mortal enemy to trusted partner.

"France's memory of June 6, 1944, is different than that of Germany," Schroeder said. "Nevertheless we share the same common conviction: We want peace."

The waves on Normandy shores ran red with blood on D-Day as Allied soldiers scurried across heavily mined and obstacle-covered beaches. Other flew into the back country in gliders or dropped in by parachute, with some getting snagged in trees or buildings.

There is no definitive D-Day death toll, but estimates range from 2,500 to more than 5,000. Bodies still are unearthed along the Normandy coast.

Russian generals and many military historians argue that D-Day was of secondary importance in World War II because the German military machine had already been broken beyond recovery in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk. In Russia, D-Day is widely known as the opening of a "second front."

Queen Elizabeth began the commemorations at Juno Beach by thanking Canadian soldiers, who were assigned to capture it during the invasion.

"Britain had been directly threatened by the enemy, but you came across the Atlantic from the relative security of your homeland to fight for the freedom of Europe," Elizabeth said.

Several thousand people, including hundreds of British veterans, crowded between rows of white gravestones during a British-French memorial service at a British cemetery in Bayeux.

At dawn Sunday, veterans proudly supporting their medals came to Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the landing sites, to remember friends killed.

More than 500 people attended a ceremony in front of the Caen prison to honor the 87 French Resistance fighters shot to death there by the Gestapo on D-Day.

"It's very moving to be here," said 76-year-old Robert Duval, whose father was executed. "I come every year, but I would prefer a memorial to honor the dead. That way we wouldn't have to come here to the site of the massacre."

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