World leaders and veterans gathered along the beach Saturday in Normandy, France, to commemorate D-Day. The Allied invasion of Normandy — exactly 65 years ago — was a turning point of World War II, the beginning of Western Europe's liberation from Nazi control.
Thousands of Allied soldiers died securing the beaches of northern France, and President Obama honored them Saturday, saying of their sacrifices: "We cannot forget. ... We must not forget."
Among the crowd Saturday at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach was James Hoernor, who was 25 years old on D-Day in 1944, when he made the perilous race from his landing craft to the beach — back when his legs were still young and strong.
Today, he is in a wheelchair. Before the ceremony, he spoke to a small group of American and French reporters.
"I was a 2nd lieutenant, and I commanded an infantry platoon of 39 men," he said.
"And how many of your 39 men survived?" a reporter asked.
Hoerner's answer: "None."
Hoerner said he thinks of the men he lost every single night. He answered question after question. He said he wants people to know what happened, what it was like.
Hoerner and other surviving World War II veterans who traveled to France for the anniversary Saturday were honored by the world leaders who spoke, but also by ordinary French citizens who were eager to show their gratitude.
"We are here today thanks to you," one woman told him.
"Well, no — it's thanks to all of us," he replied. "And I think there was a little more than that. I think maybe God had something to do with it, too."
During his remarks, President Obama told individual stories of courage and heroism as young men, risking their lives for a cause greater than themselves, defeated overwhelming odds in defying the Nazi defenses and capturing a tiny but vital sliver of French soil by nightfall.
As Obama spoke, he was able to look into the eyes of veterans who made the difficult journey back to Normandy.
"I know this trip doesn't get any easier as the years pass, but for those of you who make it, there's nothing that could keep you away," he said.
And he had the story of one such veteran: a man named Jim Norene, a member of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne, who returned to Normandy this week.
"Last night, after visiting this cemetery for one last time, he passed away in his sleep," Obama 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."
Obama said the world today is facing down hardships and struggles. He and other leaders also spoke of intolerance that remains in the world, a reminder that the lessons of D-Day have not been fully learned. But he said there is great strength to be drawn from what happened there on June 6, 1944.