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World honors D-Day's fallen, 70 years on

Friday, June 6, 2014 | 9:37 p.m. CDT; updated 4:47 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 7, 2014

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — It was a day of pride, remembrance and honor 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 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., British and other Allied 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, in addition to 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 Petro Poroshenko 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 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 Pointe 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, Calif., 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 Mount Tremper, N.Y., 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."

Ganley reported from Paris. AP writers Lori Hinnant and Julie Pace contributed from Ouistreham; Catherine Gaschka contributed from Colleville-Sur-Mer.


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Comments

tom kelly June 7, 2014 | 1:10 p.m.

To hear it told, so many men were just mowed down in comparison to how many made it through that it makes one wonder if another landing place would have been a better idea. Of course, its useless to second-guess, and I realize war was very different in 1944. The General's priority probably wasn't to be sneaky.

So, I will leave the luxury of second-guessing to the top officers, and the men who did an excellent job anyway. Thank you for what you did for us.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams June 7, 2014 | 6:41 p.m.

TomK: "The General's priority probably wasn't to be sneaky."
___________________

Perhaps you need to read about Pas de Calais when you discuss "sneaky" and muse about another landing place.

(Report Comment)
tom kelly June 8, 2014 | 2:27 p.m.

It didn't work very well, and I imagine afterwards many thought about it long and hard as to how it could have been done better, which was all I was doing. They were NOT covert. They were sitting ducks.

But, perhaps if the generals had been as smart as you, it might have worked better.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams June 8, 2014 | 5:13 p.m.

Tom: If you read about the invasion, you will understand that Hitler fortified the entire western coast of Europe. What other landing areas????

The deception that Patton was coming ashore at Pas de Calais worked. Even after the invasion, Hitler kept his reserve tank divisions near Pas de Calais, convinced Normandy was a deception. Of all the beaches, Omaha was the worst and that was mainly because our guys had to go in at low tide on a shallow-sloping beach. The other beaches went much better, although the 101st and 82nd parachute jumps behind Utah Beach to hold the causeways were a mess-up at the start.

You're wrong; the invasion worked VERY well. What DIDN'T work very well was war in the country behind the beaches where the defense was favored in the hedgerows. No one planned well for that. Bradley eventually broke through into good tank country, gave Patton a call on the telly, and the race was on until Monty convinced Eisenhower that Market-Garden was a really great idea and, oh by the way, he needed Patton's supplies.

You're right that war was different then. Back then, we didn't have many ways to reach out and touch someone without getting tagged back. About as mano-on-mano as you can get short of shirts and skins in a sword fight.

(Report Comment)

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