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Leaders honor D-Day veterans in Normandy

Leaders from more than a dozen countries put aside their differences Sunday to thank the Allied forces behind one of the most decisive military battles of all time — the D-Day invasion that broke Nazi Germany’s grip on Europe.
World leaders applaud at the ceremony honoring D-Day veterans in Arromanches, France, on Sunday. From left: Britain's Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II; French President Jacques Chirac and first lady Bernadette Chirac; President Bush and first lady Laura Bush; Russian President Vladimir Putin; and King Harald V of Norway.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Leaders from more than a dozen countries on Sunday put aside disputes over Iraq to solemnly thank the Allied forces who fought one of the most decisive military battles of all time — the D-Day invasion that broke Nazi Germany’s grip on Europe.

French President Jacques Chirac welcomed President Bush at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, where 9,387 fallen U.S. fighters are buried.

The ceremony at Omaha Beach, the bloodiest fight of all five landing zones, started with a 21-gun salute directed by one of the veterans of the Normandy fighting.

Chirac: 'France will never forget'
Both leaders sought to reinvigorate the U.S.-European bonds that were cemented during and after World War II. Chirac, a leading critic of Bush’s foreign policy, thanked America for the sacrifices made to defeat Adolf Hitler.

“France will never forget,” Chirac said. “It will never forget those men who made the supreme sacrifice to liberate our soil, our native land, our continent, from the yoke of Nazi barbarity and its murderous folly. Nor will it ever forget its debt to America, its everlasting friend.”

Bush also sought to ease the strains in the trans-Atlantic alliance.

“Our great alliance of freedom is strong, and it is still needed today,” Bush said. “America would do it again for our friends.”

French and American flags flew at half-staff in memory of President Ronald Reagan, who died Saturday at age 93 following a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Hollywood star Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg, makers of the movie about the invasion, “Saving Private Ryan,” sat discreetly in the audience alongside aging veterans proudly wearing their medals and military uniforms, many in wheelchairs.

Queen Elizabeth II opened the ceremony at Juno Beach — the beach that Canadian soldiers were assigned to capture — to thank them for their sacrifices.

“Britain had been directly threatened by the enemy, but you came across the Atlantic from the relative security of your homeland to fight for the freedom of Europe,” the queen said.

Several thousand people, including hundreds of British veterans, crowded between rows of white gravestones for the British-French memorial service at a British cemetery in Bayeux. The queen and Chirac laid a wreath of red poppies at one grave.

Gerhard Schroeder on Sunday became the first German chancellor to take part in D-Day anniversary ceremonies, symbolizing Germany’s transformation from mortal enemy to trusted partner.

Shortly before a luncheon banquet, a smiling Schroeder and Chirac embraced outside the ornate city hall in nearby Caen. Schroeder then kissed the hand of France’s first lady, Bernadette Chirac.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also was expected for Sunday’s main event: A pomp-filled ceremony in Arromanches, near the midpoint of the five code-named beaches where roughly 156,000 soldiers — mostly American, British and Canadian — stormed in from the English Channel on D-Day.

Survivors honored
Chirac decorated 14 veterans with the Legion of Honor, the country’s most prestigious award. All told, about 300 veterans from more than a dozen countries, mostly the United States, Britain and Canada, received the award in ceremonies this weekend.

With more than 20 world leaders arriving in Normandy at a time of high terror threat, France deployed fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles and 15,000 gendarmes and soldiers for security. Access to the region was being sharply restricted by police.

Later Sunday, Chirac was to decorate 16 veterans from nearly a dozen nations with the Legion of Honor, the country’s most prestigious award. All told, about 300 veterans from 13 countries, mostly the United States, Britain and Canada, were to receive the Legion of Honor this weekend.

Some 1,300 soldiers from 14 countries are to march in parades or play national anthems with military bands. American, Belgian, British, Dutch, Norwegian and French planes are to soar overhead. Seven nations were to participate in a naval flotilla near Arromanches.

Remembering friends, comrades lost
Tens of thousands of people turned out Saturday for public events to honor the sacrifices of the war veterans and fallen soldiers.

Casualty estimates for the Allied forces vary, but range from 2,500 to more than 5,000 dead on D-Day. But one thing is clear: the waves on Normandy shores ran red with blood.

Allied soldiers scurried across heavily mined and obstacle-covered shores, while others flew into the back country in gliders or by parachute — some getting snagged in trees or buildings.

The weekend commemorations amount to one of the final honors for the aging veterans.

“I’m getting near death. I’m 82, and I’m not getting any younger,” said Harry Hudec of Cleveland, Ohio, a “Red Devil” of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division who landed inland from Utah Beach.

Many veterans are nostalgic about fallen comrades-in-arms even as memories fade with age.

“It’s gratifying that people remember,” said 83-year-old James Coleman, of St. Paul, Oregon, of the 82nd’s 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. “I lost a lot of friends.”