Allies Land Again In Normandy, This Time To Honor D-Day Vets

On the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France, President Obama joined with other allied leaders in commemorating veterans and those who lost their lives in the pivotal battle there.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. It has been 70 years since D-Day. And the world is remembering the Allied invasion that freed Europe from the grip of the Nazis in World War II. We'll hear about commemorations, and we'll look back with some veterans in this part of the program. We'll hear first from Normandy and France. That's where leaders from 19 countries gather today, Present Obama among them. They remember the sacrifice made by the tens of thousands of young servicemen. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was there.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Fighter jets, flying in the missing man formation, pierced the blue skies over Omaha Beach. High on a cliff above, is the American cemetery, the final resting place for 14,387 American soldiers who stormed these beaches on June 6 and landed in the weeks that followed. President Obama paid tribute to their sacrifice to free a people they didn't even know from tyranny. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly stated the number of graves at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. The remains of 9,387 U.S. military personnel killed in the D-Day invasion and related operations are buried there.]

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We tell the story to bear what witness we can to what happened when boys from America reached Omaha Beach. By daybreak, blood soaked the water. Bombs broke the sky.

BEARDSLEY: More than a thousand veterans who took part in the Normandy invasion showed up for the stirring ceremony among the rows of right crosses on the bluff. Eighty-eight-year-old veteran, Daniel Jarzynski, says he landed on Omaha Beach at ten in the morning on June 6. But he chokes up when he talks about those he calls the real heroes.

DANIEL JARZYNSKI: The heroes are those white crosses. I'm sorry. Those white crosses are the heroes. I got two silver stars, but they don't mean a thing. Those white crosses.

BEARDSLEY: Another international ceremony took place on a wide Normandy beach at low tide. Nineteen world leaders attended, including Queen Elizabeth of England. A band played iconic British war song, It's a Long Way to Tipperary, as she walked up the red carpet. A stern faced President Vladimir Putin was also there. Russia played an enormous role in defeating the Nazis, losing nearly 9 million soldiers. It was the first time Putin has come face-to-face with President Obama since annexing Crimea, but tensions over Ukraine were set aside today. Despite the high-powered presence, the stars of this 70th anniversary are the returning veterans. All week long, they've been honored as guests in celebrations in villages along the coast. Locals crowd around them wanting pictures, autographs and stories.

CHARLES WILSON: I'm Charles E. Wilson, and I was D-Day Normandy here, 70 years ago. And this is my first time back in 70 years, and I was scared to death.

BEARDSLEY: It's also W.T. McBride's first time back. Does it feels strange being photographed like superstars?

W.T. MCBRIDE: It does. It's felt strange all day, really. I mean, every time we stop, we just get surrounded - people thanking us and taking pictures of us and everything.

BEARDSLEY: One of them is 63-year-old Parisian, Pierre Lamy. He says he drives up for the D-Day anniversary every year and will come as long as he can walk. We owe them everything, he says, and we'll never forget them. Ninety-two-year-old, Jack Schlegel, knows that. He parachuted in with the 82 airborne, and now he has a street named after him.

JACK SCHLEGEL: Many, many years later, the mayor of Picqueville says, Jack, we must name a road after you. So now, for the last 40 years, there's a Chemin Jack Schlegel 508 82nd.

BEARDSLEY: This year, the reunion between the people of Normandy and their aging liberators is evermore poignant, as it may be one of their last. Eleanor Beardsley. NPR News, Normandy.

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Correction June 7, 2014

We incorrectly state the number of graves at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, as 14,387. In fact, the remains of 9,387 U.S. military personnel killed in the D-Day invasion and related operations are buried there.

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