Obama honors D-Day at 'democracy's beachhead'

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by David Jackson / USA TODAY

khou.com

Posted on June 6, 2014 at 8:53 AM

Updated Friday, Jun 6 at 5:57 PM

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Seventy years after more than 150,000 allies stormed the beaches at Normandy, President Obama on Friday honored the D-Day veterans who "gave so much for the survival of liberty at its moment of maximum peril" during World War II.

America's claim to freedom "is written in the blood on these beaches," Obama told an audience of world leaders and decorated old soldiers. "It will endure for eternity."

Obama told the story of D-Day at the cemetery above Omaha Beach – "this sacred place of rest for 9,387 Americans" – and said it should be "seared into the memory" of history.

"Omaha -- Normandy -- this was democracy's beachhead," he said.

The American-French ceremony at Omaha Beach began a day of 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations along the French coast once held by Nazis.

On the cliffs above Omaha, congregants observed the solemn traditions of military memorials.

Obama and French President Francois Hollande — who also spoke — placed a wreath at the cemetery's main memorial. They held their hands over their hearts as a bugler played taps and jets roared overhead. A 21-gun salute boomed over the thousands of white crosses.

The American and French leaders could also be seen chatting amiably with elderly veterans who visited under much different circumstances seven decades ago.

Obama later lunched with nearly two dozen other world leaders in attendance, including the 88-year-old Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.

Another guest: Russian President Vladimir Putin. He and Obama spoke briefly about their dispute over Russia's incursion into Ukraine, officials said.

Obama and other leaders later attended a ceremony at another D-Day landing point, Sword Beach.

During his remarks at Omaha Beach, Obama told the stories of average Americans who fought their way into Normandy on June 6, 1944, some of whom attended the ceremony.

He spoke of Wilson Colwell who, told he couldn't pilot airplanes during World War II because he lacked a college degree, decided to become a parachutist instead -- at age 16.

"Rock" Merritt, who also parachuted into Normandy on that deadly morning, still spends time talking to today's service members at Fort Bragg, Obama said.

And Harry Kulkowitz, the son of Russian immigrants, lied about his age to get into the service.

"Don't worry, Harry," Obama said. "The statute of limitations has expired."

Of these and other soldiers, Obama said: "Whenever the world makes you cynical, stop and think of these men."

Cosmo Uttero, who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day and wound up in Germany on the Elbe River, said he appreciated Obama's "wonderful tribute to us."

Uttero, age 90, said he went down to the beach itself, but "I didn't recognize anything down there." The former ammo carrier said he didn't have as much emotion as he thought he would, in part because he has put so much of that bloody day out of his mind.

The world, however, should never forget D-Day, Uttero said: "If it didn't succeed, we would be living in a different world, that's for sure."

Before and after the ceremony, military families young and old moved among the thousands of white crosses, saying prayers and leaving flowers. Each grave featured small American and French flags.

"It's hard not to be moved by all those crosses," said Nick Mueller, CEO and president of The National World War II Museum. "This was an epic invasion. The scale of it is beyond anyone's comprehension."

In his speech, the president also cited his grandfather, who fought with George Patton's army, and grandmother, who helped build the "mighty arsenal of democracy" back home.

D-Day veterans can be comforted to know that their tradition is being carried by "the 9/11 Generation" that performed bravely in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, Obama said: "Your legacy is in good hands."

In addition to those who fought in Normandy, Obama praised the massive machinery that bolstered the D-Day invasion -- some 5,000 ships and landing craft, about 11,000 planes and 30,000 vehicles, the largest armada in history.

"If prayer were made of sound, the skies over England that night would have deafened the world," Obama said.

Some of the worst fighting took place there at Omaha Beach, Obama said, as "blood soaked the water (and) bombs broke the sky ... 'Hell's Beach' had earned its name."

As night fell on June 6, 1944, despite deaths and strategic setbacks, the Americans had claimed Omaha Beach.

"Within a week," Obama said, "the world's bloodiest beach had become the world's busiest port. Within a month, 1 million Allied troops thundered through Normandy into Europe."

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