President Barack Obama paid tribute to American and Allied forces who fought and died in the D-Day landings 70 years ago Friday, describing the shores of Normandy as "democracy's beachhead."
The president addressed a crowd of almost 15,000 gathered under calm blue skies at Colleville-sur-Mer, a cemetery close to Omaha beach, where some 2,500 U.S. servicemen died in the invasion. More than 200 veterans of the invasion were on hand for the ceremony.
There are 9,387 U.S. personnel buried at the cemetery, which played host to one of the numerous services across northern France commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bloody amphibious assault that turned the tide of World War II on June 6, 1944.
"They left home barely more than boys and returned home heroes," Obama said at Omaha where the fighting was so fierce it earned the name "Hell’s Beach."
"Normandy, this was democracy's beachhead. And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all posterity," Obama said. "Whenever the world makes you cynical - stop and think of these men."
In an exclusive interview with NBC's Brian Williams, Obama marveled at the Allied troops who stormed the beaches and liberated Europe — men who he said "showed such extraordinary courage," then returned home and "didn't really make a fuss about it."
Obama also reflected on his own grandfather, the late Stanley Dunham, who crossed the English Channel in a supporting wave of troops six weeks after D-Day.
“My grandfather passed away over 20 years ago,” the president said. “This is one of those days where I thought to myself, ‘It would have been nice to have him here.’”
The extended interview with Obama airs Friday night on "NBC Nightly News."
"So many of us have in our families, you know, these men who were so young when they came here and showed such extraordinary courage and capacity and changed the world, and then go back home and settle down and didn't really make a fuss about it," Obama said.
Dunham, the president's maternal grandfather, died in 1992. He was a supply sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1944. He and his maintenance company followed the Allied front across France.
During Obama's speech at Omaha on Friday, French and American flags fluttered in a gusty breeze behind the president, who together with French President Francois Hollande addressed an audience seated against a backdrop of rows upon rows of headstones.
After Obama arrived via helicopter from Paris, where he had met Hollande for dinner on Thursday night, a military band played the French and U.S. national anthems.
Later the two world leaders walked to an observation deck at Omaha and looked across the beach for a few moments. Obama then met veterans from World War II and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, several of whose stories he had mentioned in his speech.
Other services of varying sizes were going on in and around the five landing sites of the invasion to honor the more than 150,000 American, British, Canadian and other Allied D-Day troops who risked and gave their lives to defeat Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II attended a separate event at Bayeux cemetery, before meeting Obama and Hollande ahead of a group lunch at the nearby Chateau de Benouville.
Also at the lunch was Russian President Vladimir Putin and German leader Chancellor Angela Merkel, among others, and before sitting down to dine the group posed for a carefully choreographed group photo.
Although Obama and Putin were several places away from each other at both the photo opportunity and the dinner table, the White House confirmed the leaders used the opportunity to have their first face-to-face discussion since the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations following the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.
Putin, Merkel, and the newly elected Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko also met on the sidelines, with the Kremlin saying the threesome spoke of a mutual desire to end the bloody conflict still raging in the east of Ukraine.
Thibault Camus / AP
An American flag is placed in the sand of Omaha Beach at sunrise on Friday.
The commemorations began at midnight, marking the moment when gliders carrying 181 men landed behind enemy lines and seized the strategically important Pegasus Bridge, laying the foundations for the imminent attack. At sunrise, hours before Obama spoke, flags flew at half staff at Omaha and 29th Infantry Division and serving soldiers stood to attention at 6:30 a.m. (1.30 a.m. ET) - the exact moment when Allied troops first waded ashore. More than 8,000 men died that day.
In the afternoon the world leaders and veterans made up a crowd of thousands at the main D-Day event at the port of Ouistreham on Sword Beach. Hollande gave another speech, which was followed an interpretative dance performance accompanied by pyrotechnics and historic footage portraying the events of World War II.
Charles Dharapak / AP
President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande stand during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach on Friday.
In the opening lines of his rousing address at Omaha beach, Obama recounted a vivid picture of the hours before the invasion.
"If prayer were made of sound, the skies over England that night would have deafened the world," he said. "Fresh-faced GIs rubbed trinkets, kissed pictures of sweethearts, checked and re-checked their equipment.
"And in the pre-dawn hours, planes rumbled down runways, gliders and paratroopers slipped through the sky, giant screws began to turn on an armada that looked like more ships than sea.
"And more than 150,000 souls set off towards this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but rather the course of human history."
The D-Day invasion marked a turning point in World War II, cracking Hitler's western front as the Soviet troops made advances in the east. D-Day launched the weekslong Battle of Normandy and brought the Allies to Paris, which they liberated from Nazi occupation.
Obama declared June 6 a national remembrance day.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published June 6 2014, 1:01 AM