COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — It was a day of pride, remembrance and honors 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.
After 70 years, a dwindling number of veterans, civilian survivors of the brutal battle for Normandy, and 19 world leaders and monarchs celebrated on Friday the sacrifices of D-Day.
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. and British troops.
“This was democracy’s beachhead,” he said, assuring veterans that “your legacy is in good hands.”
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, as well as 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.
Hollande’s invitation to Ukraine’s president-elect 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 World War II met with Petro Poroshenko and Obama on the sidelines of the event.