Sixty years on, the sober expanse of white crosses has lost none of its power, but the men who return to mourn are growing feebler and fewer.

"The veterans are mostly in their eighties, and for many it's now or never," Suzel Clemencon said, with a sad shake of her head, at the Hotel du Casino her family has run in nearby Vierville since 1920.

The 12-room hotel at the western edge of Omaha Beach has been booked solid for two years, like most others close to where Allied troops stormed ashore on D-Day, June 6.

With President Bush and a dozen other world leaders expected for ceremonies, the hedgerow-lined farm lanes may be as hectic as when fleeing German tanks and trucks jammed them in 1944.

Engineers are building a replica of the massive floating port that brought heavy armor ashore under pounding German guns. Behind heavy security, invited guests will sense echoes of the old drama.

Bursts of martial music, ringing speeches and raucous reunions will punctuate all the noisy hubbub of wine-lubricated crowds on a summer afternoon in the green Normandy splendor.

But the veterans of World War II come back mostly for moments of silence at the cemeteries -- American, French, British, Canadian and German, aging men and their families reflecting on war's finality.

The message is clear within the 172 acres at Colleville where fallen Americans lie under 9,238 crosses and 149 Stars of David on a landscaped bluff overlooking the sandy beach below.

"I cried," said Guttorm Hetland, an 81-year-old Californian walking slowly from the American Cemetery just after bugles sounded Taps at closing time.

Hetland, a Norwegian-American pilot during the war, missed the D-Day landing, but he led a squadron of five P-51 fighters over Paris in the months that followed.

Like so many others, he said his quiet prayer for something unimaginable that happened a lifetime ago and then returned to the moment, a different world entirely. Soon, he was joking around.

"Hey, I don't know what this guy is gonna do to us or where he'll take us," Hetland said, pointing to Hans Forster, his family's guide and driver, who berated Hetland in return with good-natured banter.

Forster, now 76, said he was flying with the German Luftwaffe over Denmark in the last months of the war, although he would have been in his teens.

In different ways, both men illustrate the mixed feelings as past jostles present on the Normandy beaches.

After the war, Forster settled in Paris, where he has driven tourists from all over the world for 40 years. Early last year when Americans demanded loyalty from France in the showdown with Iraq, he was furious.

The French and Germans also wanted to depose Saddam Hussein, he said, but not without first exploring all the possibilities.

"How can a country expect absolute obedience because of something that happened 60 years ago?" he asked. "We have learned in Europe that it is better to look for peace than go to war."

Hetland finds bitter irony in the name of his California hometown: Weimar. It was Germany's Weimar Republic that, in the midst of political and economic chaos, elected Adolf Hitler as chancellor in 1934.

"Over here you get a reaction, but few people back home even recognize the old name," Hetland said.

Despite modern discord, French Normandy still exudes a deep gratitude to Allied forces, and particularly the Americans, who paid such a heavy price on D-Day and after.

"I have to admit I'd hate to have been born as a Nazi," said Jean-Luc Georges, 38, a fishmonger in Trouville, a small city up the coast. "I feel awfully good that they came, even late."

A few miles away at Pont l'Eveque, Anne-Marie Duhamel sees a cross section of French society and a trickle of American tourists at her 500-year-old inn, the Aigle d'Or.

"Definitely, feelings here run warm and deep toward America," she said. As a result, she added, many were surprised and hurt by official U.S. hostility when they saw things differently over Iraq.

They did not expect that of the America that selflessly sacrificed so much on D-Day and then put in place the Marshall Plan to help Europe rebuild.

Near the rows of crosses at Colleville, many French were stunned at reports from across the ocean of angry Americans pouring out wine and renaming fries.

"You wouldn't have believed the reaction here," said Fred Rose, a French-speaking American working at the visitor's desk. "People were shocked when a Florida senator wanted to repatriate remains."

One night, he said, two backhoes started work on a construction project nearby, and neighbors mistakenly thought Americans were digging up the graves. "They went crazy. Everyone asked, 'How can they do that?"'

Post-Sept. 11, 2001, fears cut visits to Colleville nearly in half, Rose said. In 2000, 2.2 million people came, half from the United States. Last year, there were 1,229,145, with only 368,276 Americans.

But, he added, the draw of those solemn white crosses is unlikely to dim, even after the old generation passes on.

Rose broke off the conversation to help a young American woman seeking a grave. On a computer, he tapped out the surname she gave him -- Haushalter -- and two listings popped up on the screen.

Edward Haushalter was a lieutenant, Glenn Haushalter a sergeant. Both were GIs.

The woman, seeking her great uncle Glenn, was told he was buried in Brittany, two hours away at a different American cemetery. She nodded gravely and left without another word.

A young girl touches the U.S. flags on a wreath laid at the American World War II cemetery at Colleville sur Mer in northwestern France.William M. Wilson touches a cross at the American World War II cemetery 60 years after Allied troops landed ashore.A U.S. Sherman Tank sits outside the war memorial in Bayeux, France. Preparations are underway for the 60th anniversary of D-Day.