D day, June 6, 1944: Thousands of Allied troops began the long-awaited invasion of Western Europe along Normandy's Calvados coastline, signaling the beginning of the end of World War II.

Forty-five years later, thousands of Americans again descended on Normandy's beaches and villages -- but this time the group was made up of former GIs and their families, tourists, schoolchildren and history buffs, all seeking to touch a legacy still evolving.

My wife and I started our Normandy pilgrimage by following a present-day unit of the 82nd Airborne Division ("All Americans") into Ste.-Mere-Eglise, where they had landed during the pre-dawn hours of June 6. Now, the paratroopers were re-creating D-day history by landing on the Amfreville drop zone, a mile from town.

When we arrived, the town square was bustling with former paratroopers, tourists and townspeople basking in the glow of their moment in history. Many were taking pictures of a parachute and a "paratrooper" hanging from the Ste.-Mere-Eglise church steeple -- the "dangling paratrooper" who is responsible for drawing so many people to this tiny village.

Following a mass and memorial service in the 13th-century church, George "Chappie" Wood, the division's chaplain, recounted the events of the airborne assault. "Like angels descending from heaven," more than 6,000 men from the 82nd were dropped into Normandy. Wood, a veteran of three wartime parachute jumps, said that navigational errors, poor weather and bad luck caused hundreds of paratroopers to miss their drop zones.

Many paratroopers, including John Steele of F Company, 504th Parachute Regiment, came down over Ste.-Mere-Eglise's square. But Steele's parachute snagged the church's steeple; there he hung, 80 feet above the square, helplessly watching his comrades being killed. Miraculously, Steele wasn't shot by the Germans, who believed Providence was protecting him. Before the 82nd secured the town, Steele was captured by the Germans, but he escaped three days later. (He died in 1969, seven years after being immortalized by actor Red Buttons in the Hollywood film "The Longest Day.")

At the Airborne Troops Museum, a circular, domed building resembling a parachute, an elevated walkway displays photographs and maps. Somberly, we viewed pictures of battle-weary paratroopers, crashed gliders and rows of dead GIs, as well as letters and personal effects of former paratroopers (including a pair of faded green GI shorts with buttons instead of an elastic band -- a reminder that rubber for consumers was scarce). On the main floor, a detailed model of Ste.-Mere-Eglise shows the positions of the Germans and the ill-fated Americans who landed on the square.

I was fascinated to see a Waco glider, one of 512 wood and canvas transports used to ferry some of the Airborne troops into France. The Wacos were towed from England by C-47 Dakota transport planes (the C-47 Museum is a few steps from the Airborne Troops Museum), then piloted to landing zones close to Ste.-Mere-Eglise. We walked through the troop compartment, pausing to inspect its "crew."

The glider's cramped quarters continue to take their toll. One former paratrooper forgot to duck while exiting the glider, and chuckled to his wife, "I hit my head getting out the last time I was in one of these damn things."

Before leaving Ste.-Mere-Eglise, we stopped at the town hall, where the first "Road to Victory" marker (Highway N13) is placed. The conical standards line the 711-mile route the Allies took while defeating the Nazis; they stretch across France and into Luxembourg, ending in Bastogne, Belgium, where the Battle of the Bulge was fought. There is also a plaque beside the marker designating Ste.-Mere-Eglise as the "first liberated town on the Western Front."

Assembled for the Allied invasion of Normandy was the largest armada in history: 150,000 American, British, Canadian and French troops (with more in reserve); 12,000 planes; 5,300 ships; and 1,500 tanks.

The Allies had concocted an elaborate plan to convince the Germans that the attack would come at Calais. The ruse worked: The Germans were so completely duped that once the invasion started, Nazi generals still believed the attack was a decoy. The Allies had defied military logic by attacking in Normandy, the widest point in the channel.

We slowly drove the 15 miles or so to Utah Beach -- where Gen. Omar Bradley's 1st American Army landed in the early hours of June 6 -- behind a convoy of vintage World War II vehicles. The "Road to Victory" was choked with staff cars, jeeps and armored vehicles crammed with grandfathers wearing their old Army uniforms, or at least the parts they could still fit into. The men were savoring the attention, perhaps for the last time.

The American landing on Utah Beach near Ste.-Marie-du-Mont was relatively easy. Despite coming ashore at the wrong beach, the U.S. 4th Infantry Division met weak German resistance and quickly pushed inland. Later in the day, the 4th Division linked up with the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, which had parachuted into Normandy to secure the area.

The Utah Beach Museum in Arromanches in Normandy details the U.S. Navy's contribution to the invasion. It was the Navy that provided precision bombardment, silencing several German coastal batteries; several warships were sunk off Utah Beach by German gunners. A guide escorted us to a small stair-step amphitheater, where we watched a 15-minute archival film of the invasion (narrated in French).

A large, lighted display showed the invasion's progression. Above the model, pictures of the invasion were rapidly flashed on a screen. We used hand-held listening boxes for the English narration, but at times it was difficult coordinating the map sequences with the recorded information.

Michel de Vallavieille, Ste.-Marie-du-Mont's mayor, kept using words like "phenomenal" and "incredible" as he described the events of D-day. Two of his brothers, he told us, were killed during the Nazi occupation, and he was seriously wounded during the invasion.

There are several American monuments in the Utah Beach area. The U.S. 4th and 90th Infantry divisions and 1st Special Engineer Brigade have monuments near the museum; there is also an impressive memorial from the U.S. government to the soldiers who landed on Utah Beach. And several roads leading to Utah Beach are named after GIs killed on D-day.

The U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled Pointe du Hoc on D-day. The Rangers assaulted the 100-foot vertical cliffs to destroy several gun batteries that threatened American landing craft. Unbeknown to the Rangers, many of the guns had already been moved by the Germans; others were never installed.

Pointe du Hoc -- about 20 miles from Utah Beach -- looks like a moonscape, with dozens of huge craters gouged into the earth from naval and aerial bombing; tourists enjoy having their pictures taken while standing in the craters. Near some of the craters, massive slabs of concrete jut from the ground, embedded after being hurled through the air by the bombing's concussive force. Pointe du Hoc's terrain is green now, but strategically placed signs warn visitors about unexploded shells.

Here we saw jubilant returning GIs, some greeting comrades they hadn't seen in 45 years. Others stood motionlessly, staring out upon the peaceful ripples of the English Channel, mopping away tears.

We trudged to Pointe du Hoc's crest, where a granite pylon commemorating the 2nd Ranger Battalion rests atop an observation bunker. The concrete and steel fortresses were first used extensively in the North African desert. Twisted metal rods exposed from the bombing protrude from the bunker's entrance. We were immediately enveloped by the bunker's blackened ceilings and clinging gloom as we descended into its dank chambers. The spooky corridors led to a forward compartment where German spotters with a panoramic view of the channel once directed artillery at American landing craft and ships. In an eerily lit chamber, a plaque lists the names of the men who died capturing Pointe du Hoc. After two days of fighting, only 90 of the 225 men who scaled the cliffs remained alive.

The 20-minute drive from Pointe du Hoc to the landing beaches carried us past many farmhouses flying the American and French flags, a testament to the enduring bond between Normandy's people and the U.S. Army.

The Omaha Beach landings by the U.S. 1st ("Big Red 1") and 29th Infantry divisions were the most difficult and costly. The German garrison defending the beaches was well prepared. There was virtually no cover on the 200-yard-wide beach for the advancing GIs. The area was cluttered with underwater mines, tank traps and barbed wire. Concrete barriers at the dunes' base trapped both divisions for most of D-day; casualties were horrendous.

Our stroll along the bluffs above Omaha Beach brought us to the 1st Infantry Division Monument. We met Murray Goldberg, Herman Powell and Edward Stroud, all first-time returnees to Normandy. The three men were in the 16th Infantry Regiment and came ashore with the first waves. They huddled near the monument looking among the 1,000 names for friends who died on the beaches during the first day.

The men shared their D-day memories. Powell remembered being wet and cold, dug into a foxhole on the beach during the first night. Goldberg choked back tears as he recalled watching an equipment-laden GI drown. Stroud talked fondly about Dagwood, the unit's dog and mascot, whose keen hearing saved many American lives from enemy artillery. The soldiers, all now retired, fought in every battle and "never got a scratch. We were lucky. God was looking out for us."

Within walking distance of Omaha Beach is the Normandy American Military Cemetery near St.-Laurent-sur-Mer, easily the most painful reminder of the invasion. The cemetery is graced with a magnificent semicircular colonnade with loggia at each end; two large urns guard the entrances of each loggia. The floor inside the arc is surfaced with pebbles taken from the landing beaches. There are huge battle maps of the Normandy landings and European war on the walls inside the colonnade. On a platform in front of the pavilion is an eye-catching, 22-foot bronze statue, "Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves."

The impeccably kept, 172-acre cemetery contains the remains of 9,386 Americans killed in Normandy. We walked for what seemed like hours, past rows of manicured graves graced with crosses and an occasional Star of David. A woman gave me a tiny American flag, which I later planted on the grave of a fellow Pennsylvanian killed on D-day.

The Battle of Normandy lasted seven weeks. At the beginning of the invasion there were 10,274 casualties, including 2,132 dead. But by September, after the battle was over, Allied casualties totaled close to 230,000, German casualties about 500,000.

Several cities and towns, including Caen, Falaise and St.-Lo, were virtually annihilated.

Plans for the 50th D-day Anniversary in 1994 are already underway. One former GI lamented that the observance "will probably be the last big bash for the World War II soldier. We're getting up there in age and soon there won't be too many of us left."

But he was only partially correct. The men who landed on D-day will never cheat time, but their heroics and sacrifices have made a still-evolving impression on Normandy and the rest of the free world -- probably forever.

Gregory S. Cooke, an instructor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, is a freelance writer.

If you travel to Normandy, note that D-day-related ceremonies are more extensive during five-year anniversaries, and last about four days. Many activities overlap, making it difficult to develop an itinerary based solely upon geography. Itineraries should be based upon personal interest, which will probably mean hopscotching back and forth to various points; distances are short.

Whenever you go, always carry an umbrella and a jacket, regardless of the forecast or the frequently sunny sky. The weather is fickle; winds can be blustery, and it's almost certain to rain sometime during the day.

GETTING AROUND: The best way to see Normandy is to drive. While there are guided tours to many points of interest, driving allows for a more leisurely experience and creates greater opportunities to meet people. Omaha and Utah beaches are a three- or four-hour drive from Paris, but trains run regularly to Normandy; rental cars are available in Caen, Bayeux and St.-Lo. All roads are clearly marked.

WHERE TO STAY: There are many hotels in World War II sites in Normandy, including Ste.-Mere-Eglise, St.-Lo and Ste.-Marie-du-Mont; rates start at about $40 double. Reservations are a must during anniversary periods.

STE.-MERE-EGLISE: Admission to the Airborne Troops Museum is about $2 and is also good for the C-47 Museum. The Airborne Troops Museum is open daily April through September and on weekends in winter, except from mid-December to mid-January when it's closed.

The C-47 Museum is open daily, June through August, September through Nov. 16 and Jan. 15 through May.

UTAH BEACH: Admission to the Utah Beach Museum is about $2.25; American veterans are encouraged to attend and are admitted free. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., except in winter, when it's open only on Sundays and bank holidays.

INFORMATION: French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020, 1-900-420-2003 (50 cents a minute). -- Gregory S. Cooke