CAEN, France -- Scores of aging American veterans returned to Normandy on Thursday to honor the thousands of comrades who died 58 years ago in the battle that proved to be a turning point of World War II.
Strolling through cemeteries of war dead and visiting former battlefields, the veterans joined many in France in commemorating the D-Day landing of June 6, 1944. Wreath-laying ceremonies were held across the country, especially in villages along the Normandy coast.
Though it came at a terrible price, the Allies' invasion was the first breach in Hitler's Atlantic wall and led to the liberation of France and the defeat of Nazi Germany.
With tourists and French schoolchildren standing by, hundreds of veterans retraced their steps along the beaches, where thousands died in a deafening hail of German machine gun and mortar fire.
Veterans also visited the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, where 9,387 U.S. soldiers are buried, killed during World War II. For many the memories were still painful.
"It's kind of hard at the cemetery, but it's part of my life," said 78-year-old veteran Bill Tucker of Boston, who has visited the graves of six friends buried at the cemetery nearly a dozen times.
"Every time I come here, I get a feeling like I'm home," said Tucker as he visited friends in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the closest town to the spot where he landed as a young machine-gunner on D-Day.
The first ceremony of the day took place at the famed Pegasus Bridge, the first French bridge to be liberated by Allied Forces that momentous day.
"I will never forget it," said Wally Parr, 80, of Milwaukee, who drank champagne with other veterans in front of a statue honoring British Maj. John Howard, whose troops led the attack. "In a few minutes, we took our objective and wiped out the German garrison."
About 100 French and American parachutists dropped from the sky at Ranville to honor the Allied parachutists of D-Day. A similar display is set for Saturday, when up to 130 parachutists from the United States, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic and Denmark are to descend on Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French city to be liberated.
About 60,000 Americans landed on the Normandy coastline during D-Day, in the first breach of Hitler's Atlantic wall. They fought alongside British and Canadian troops. Few had any combat experience, and thousands were gunned down by German machine gun and mortar fire.
The U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., reported 6,036 American casualties, including soldiers wounded and missing, during the massive invasion that began on D-Day.
Allied deaths from June 6 through June 20, 1944: American, 3,082; British, 1,842; and Canadian, 363. There were also casualties from the other countries that participated in the invasion -- France, Australia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland.