IMAGE: Dignitaries attend ceremony marking 63rd anniversary of D-Day invasion at American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer
Benoit Tessier  /  Reuters
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, sixth from right, and French Defense Minister Herve Morin, to Gates' left, attend a ceremony Wednesday marking the 63rd anniversary of the D-Day invasion at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.
msnbc.com news services
updated 6/6/2007 4:37:09 PM ET 2007-06-06T20:37:09

Above a cliff of silent reminders, Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday evoked the image of fallen warriors to mark the 63rd anniversary of the Normandy D-Day landings that turned the tide of World War II.

Gates and his French counterpart also used the occasion to pledge closer bilateral ties after years of strained relations over Iraq.

“Let the people of our nations never forget that we are bound by history and values just as we are bound by blood — the blood of Americans, the blood of Frenchmen,” Gates told the hundreds gathered at the Normandy American Cemetery in France.

French Defense Minister Herve Morin, a member of the new conservative government that has promised a revived friendship with Washington, said the alliance between the United States and France must transcend differences over policy.

“Mr. Secretary, since the end of World War II our countries quarreled sometimes, but this feeling of union has always prevailed and in the future will have to prevail above all,” Morin said at the memorial ceremony. “This transatlantic alliance is still necessary at the dawn of the 21st Century.”

The two men also dedicated a visitor’s center at the Normandy American Cemetery, the burial ground for 9,387 war dead, most of whom lost their lives in the amphibious assault and subsequent operations.

Connecting past with present
The bloody beach assault on June 6, 1944, “unfolded as if it were a lifetime” for the young men who braved German guns, Gates said, looking out upon a vast field of white grave markers on a rainy, chilly day.

In remarks at the midday ceremony, Gates said U.S. and allied soldiers landed at Normandy to destroy entrenched forces of oppression “so that this nation, this continent and this world could one day know the tidings of peace.”

He tied the memory of Normandy to the challenge of today’s war on terrorism.

U.S. World War II veteran Walter Ehlers (C) stands
Mychele Daniau  /  AFP - Getty Images
World War II veteran Walter Ehlers stands in silence between two Norman-French teenagers on Wednesday at the American military cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, France, to paid homage to young US soldiers killed on D-Day

“We once again face enemies seeking to destroy our way of life, and we are once again engaged in an ideological struggle that may not find resolution for many years or even decades,” he said.

Speaking before Gates was Walter Ehlers, a Medal of Honor recipient who landed at Omaha Beach as a young Army staff sergeant — an experience he recalled in vivid detail.

“We weren’t prepared for the chaos and all the disasters,” he said.

‘The advance of freedom’
In his own remarks, Morin said D-Day has lasting importance for his country.

“For the French it was the beginning of the advance of freedom,” he said.

When he arrived in Paris on Tuesday evening Gates became the first U.S. defense secretary to visit the French capital in nearly 10 years.

In his Normandy speech, Gates painted a painful sketch of the D-Day misery and death, noting that it was preceded on June 5 by the movement of an enormous mass of men and ships that sailed across the English Channel.

“For those who were here, the next day, June 6, unfolded as if it were a lifetime,” he said. “Men who had only recently felt the warmth of their families now felt the frigid waters of the English Channel and the lonely sands of a wartorn, wind-swept beachhead.

“Men who had just a few months earlier been boys in the midst of adolescence suddenly found themselves traversing a warren of lethal obstacles on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword.”

Gates recalled emotions of young men facing death in a foreign land.

“Captain Frank Corder of Texas stepped onto the beach and, as bullets and bombs whizzed by, said, ‘This is no place for Mrs. Corder’s little boy Frank,”’ Gates said.

“Ahead of Mrs. Corder’s little boy and all the troops pushing inland still lay hundreds of thousands of determined enemies ready to fight in the hedgerows and apple orchards or Normandy, in the forests of the Ardennes and finally in the narrow streets of German villages.”

After the ceremony Gates visited Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers scaled sheer cliffs on D-Day, taking heavy casualties, to overrun German gun emplacements that were deemed a threat to the Omaha Beach landing.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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