OMAHA BEACH, NORMANDY, FRANCE — U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders paid tribute to World War II veterans at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
In a speech at Omaha Beach on the coast of Normandy, France, Obama hailed the troops who he said “gave so much for the survival of liberty at this moment of maximum peril.”
He spoke from a monument overlooking neat rows of white marble crosses on the graves of nearly 10,000 soldiers. The cemetery lies on a bluff near the beaches where more than 160,000 Allied troops – 73,000 of them American – launched the massive assault on a shoreline heavily fortified by German forces. Though about 4,500 died that day, Allied forces liberated Paris two months later and ultimately defeated the Nazis throughout Europe.
In his speech, Obama praised the veterans who took part in D-Day for changing the course of human history, saying it is important their story is “seared into the memory of the future world.”
Opening the ceremony, French President Francois Hollande also said the sacrifice of the soldiers “changed the world.”
“We owe it to the memory of those who died for us, and we also owe it – with regards to the willingness of France – to be present everywhere, aware that it comes with a long history and that it still has a destiny to fulfill for the fate of the whole world,” Hollande said.
The leaders of 18 countries and thousands of veterans took part in the ceremony.
Among the leaders and dignitaries in attendance were British Prime Minister David Cameron and Queen Elizabeth II, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko.
Merkel told Putin, in talks Friday, that Russia had a “great responsibility” to support peace in Ukraine, Reuters reported, citing a German government spokeswoman.
Obama, Putin Meet
Obama is capping a four-day European tour in which he has put much energy into isolating Putin for his country’s actions in Ukraine. The two men spoke briefly and informally at a D-Day luncheon for the assembled leaders Friday.
U.S. officials said President Obama made clear to Putin that Russia must recognize Petro Poroshenko as the legitimate leader of Ukraine, cease support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and stop the flow of arms and materiel across the border. Obama urged Putin to work with the new Ukrainian government to reduce tensions, and indicated that a failure to do so would only deepen Russia’s isolation.
Russian news agencies quoted Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying the Russian and American presidents both called for “a speedy end to the violence and military operations.”
Meanwhile, some U.S. veterans revisited the site of D-Day, the largest amphibious assault in military history. A few, including American Jim Martin of the 101st Airborne Division, marked the anniversary by holding a re-enactment parachute jump on Thursday.
“Was it different?” a reporter asked him after making the jump.
“Oh yes, nobody shooting at me. It’s much nicer,” Martin replied.
Other veterans, most of whom now are in their 90s, observed the anniversary in a more relaxed manner, watching the sun rise at the beach Friday.
On this June 6, the skies once again filled with smoke and the ground rumbled as warplanes flew overhead. But this time the smoke was from a 21-gun salute and the planes were F-16 fighter jets flying in a missing-man formation to honor the sacrifices of thousands of U.S. and other Allied soldiers.