CAEN, France — Recalling the "unimaginable hell" of D-Day suffering, President Barack Obama paid tribute Saturday to the against-all-odds Allied landings that broke Nazi Germany's grip on France and turned the tide of history.
"The sheer improbability of this victory is part of what makes D-Day so memorable," Obama said.
He spoke under a sunny sky at the American Cemetery on cliffs overlooking Omaha Beach and other landings sites where American, British and Canadian soldiers established a beachhead 65 years ago under the withering fire of Nazi troops awaiting the Allies' cross-channel gamble.
Obama visited an American battlefield museum with his wife, Michelle; laid a wreath in honor of the fallen; greeted U.S. military members; and mingled with uniformed World War II veterans.
Normandy's cliffs, still pocked with gun emplacements and other remnants of the war, including the white headstones of thousands of buried American troops, provided sure footing for a new U.S. commander in chief.
Obama noted that the site has been visited by many U.S. presidents and predicted that "Long after our time on this Earth has passed, one word will still bring forth the pride and awe of men and women who will never meet the heroes who sit before us: D-Day."
He said the lessons of that pivotal effort are eternal.
"Friends and veterans, what we cannot forget — what we must not forget — is that D-Day was a time and a place where the bravery and selflessness of a few was able to change the course of an entire century," he said.
'Many never made it out'
Speaking at a time when he is directing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — both of which have lasted longer than the U.S. involvement in World War II — Obama described in stark terms the harsh conditions the Allied invaders faced at Normandy. He noted that in many ways the seaborne invasion plan went awry, leaving the assaulting forces vulnerable to Nazi guns in their path.
"When the ships landed here at Omaha, an unimaginable hell rained down on the men inside," he said. "Many never made it out of the boats."
But the Allies prevailed, gathering strength for a breakout from Normandy in July that opened a path toward Paris and eventually took the Allies all the way to Germany and victory over the Nazis. Obama paid tribute to the Allies — the British, the Canadian, the French as well as the Russians, "who sustained some of the war's heaviest casualties on the Eastern front."
"At an hour of maximum danger, amid the bleakest of circumstances, men who thought themselves ordinary found it within themselves to do the extraordinary," Obama said. "They fought out of a simple sense of duty — a duty sustained by the same ideals for which their countrymen had fought and bled for over two centuries."
Earlier, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown each recalled the sacrifices of the Allies.
Obama noted that his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, arrived at Normandy six weeks after D-Day and marched across France in Lt. Gen. George S. Patton's army. Attending with Obama was his great uncle, Charles Payne, who was part of the first American division to reach and liberate a Nazi concentration camp that Obama and his great uncle visited in Germany on Friday.
Obama saluted the contributions of individual veterans of the Normandy landings, including one veteran, Jim Norene, who fought as a member of the 101st Airborne Division.
"Last night, after visiting this cemetery for one last time, he passed away in his sleep," the president said. "Jim was gravely ill when he left his home, and he knew that he might not return. But just as he did 65 years ago, he came anyway. May he now rest in peace with the boys he once bled with, and may his family always find solace in the heroism he showed here."
Earlier in the day, French police and U.S. military helicopters circled above the Normandy city of Caen, where Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy met. Skies were overcast but showed no signs of the rough winds and rain that marked June 6, 1944.
The global recession, Afghanistan, Iran and Mideast peace topped the agenda of talks between Obama and Sarkozy.
While France and the United States clearly have their differences, the relationship that turned frosty under George W. Bush largely because of the Iraq war has seemed to thaw some with Sarkozy and Obama at the helm of their respective countries. Both have expressed fondness for each other.
The first couples of each country — Obama and his wife Michelle and Sarkozy and model-turned-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy — greeted each other warmly with grins, hugs and, for the women, double kisses on the cheeks outside of the French Prefecture, as several hundred people cheered, shrieked and waved small French and American flags from behind security barriers around the regional headquarters. Police surrounded the crowd from all sides.
Obama and Sarkozy shook a few of the onlookers' hands and listened to each country's national anthem in the gravel palace courtyard before heading down the red carpeted walkway to retreat inside for private talks over lunch.
Their wives — dueling style icons — were to meet separately. They wore competing outfits: Michelle Obama was in a white dress topped by a matching white coat and a wide gold belt, while Carla Bruni-Sarkozy donned a cream dress with a thin brown belt.
On Friday, Obama witnessed the Nazi ovens of the Buchenwald concentration camp , its clock tower frozen at the time of liberation, and said the leaders of today must not rest against the spread of evil.
He challenged Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who casts doubt on the Holocaust, to visit Buchenwald, calling it the "ultimate rebuke" to those who deny its horrors ever happened.
Sarkozy met Wednesday with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who delivered a message from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sarkozy intended to discuss the message with Obama, according to a senior French official, who spoke on condition of anonymity according to presidential protocol.
Obama said Friday he is sending special envoy George J. Mitchell back to the Middle East next week. The president is also hoping his outreach to Islam in his Cairo speech will make progress more possible toward Mideast peace.
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