Under a pristine blue sky, more than 20 world leaders gathered Sunday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, the world's largest amphibious military expedition, which cost tens of thousands of lives and eventually wrested control of mainland Europe from Nazi Germany.
Thousands of aging and ailing D-Day veterans -- Americans, Britons, Canadians, French and others -- met for what will likely be the last major reunion of what is now commonly called the Greatest Generation. With most of the D-Day veterans now in their eighties and dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a day, the ceremony -- with mournful martial music and the blasts of cannons -- bore the mark of a valedictory for those who fought, as well as a tribute to the fallen.
"France will never forget," French President Jacques Chirac said during ceremonies at the American military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. "She will never forget that sixth of June 1944, the day hope was reborn and rekindled. She will never forget those men who made the ultimate sacrifice to liberate our soil, our native land, our continent from the yoke of Nazi barbarity."
President Bush, who attended the events with first lady Laura Bush, said: "Generations to come will know what happened here, but these men heard the guns. Visitors will always pay respects at this cemetery, but these veterans come looking for a name, and remembering faces and voices from a lifetime ago."
"In the trials and that sacrifice of war we became inseparable allies," Bush said at the event, facing a sea of white stone crosses and Stars of David, marking the 9,387 American gravesites there. "The nations that battled across this continent would become trusted partners in the cause of peace, and our great alliance of freedom is strong and it is still needed today."
Bush offered a conciliatory pledge to Europeans who today question the U.S. commitment to the transatlantic alliance forged in World War II: "America would do it again for our friends."
He blended his remembrance with a brief tribute to former president Ronald Reagan, who died Saturday at age 93. "Twenty summers ago, another American president came here to Normandy to pay tribute to the men of D-Day," Bush said. "He was a courageous man, himself, and a gallant leader in the cause of freedom, and today we honor the memory of Ronald Reagan."
Twenty years ago, Reagan gave a memorable speech marking the 40th anniversary of D-Day. "These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc," Reagan said then. "These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."
Bush spoke about the waning days of the surviving veterans. "Now has come a time of reflection, with thoughts of another horizon, and the hope of reunion with the boys you knew," he said. "I want each of you to understand you will be honored ever and always by the country you served and by the nations you freed."
At the main flag-draped ceremony at Arromanches, the midway point along the Normandy beaches where U.S., British and Canadian forces landed at dawn 60 years ago, Chirac said: "France will never forget what it owes America, its steadfast friend and ally."
"France is keenly aware that the Atlantic Alliance, forged in adversity, remains, in the face of new threats, a fundamental element of our collective security."
The event took on the form of a mini-summit. Bush, Chirac, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Queen Elizabeth II, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, as well as the leaders of Belgium, Norway, New Zealand and the Netherlands, met for a working lunch at a chateau that survived the Allied bombing of Caen and now serves as city hall.
Also in attendance was German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, making the first appearance at a D-Day commemoration by a German leader. Schroeder was born just two months before the invasion began, and for many Germans, his presence at the commemoration marked a long-sought recognition that the postwar period is over and Germany has resumed its place as a full and equal partner in the Western alliance.
Chirac's surprise invitation to Schroeder this year was as much a measure of the personal warmth between the two leaders -- who became close last year after jointly opposing the Iraq war -- as a sign of how far Europe has come in burying its wartime past.
In a poll published Saturday, conducted by the French firm IFOP for the French daily newspaper Figaro, the vast majority of French surveyed considered Germany a better ally to France than the United States. About 82 percent of those polled said they considered Germany a very strong or somewhat strong ally, compared with just 55 percent who said the United States was a very strong or somewhat strong ally. Ten years ago, 70 percent of French citizens surveyed in a similar poll said the United States was a very strong or somewhat strong ally.
In Le Molay-Littry, Marie Marie-Therese Ozenne, 49, owner of Cafe du Commerce, said, " I know there are some people in Normandy who still speak badly of Germans, but that is just the older generation." She added, "The funny thing is that most people here in Molay-Littry don't see Schroeder's visit as a problem. The people here are more against Bush than Schroeder."
Schroeder's participation stirred a debate in Germany that mixed patriotism, guilt, remorse over the German war dead and the sense that for Germans, D-Day was as much a defeat as a liberation. Most controversial was Schroeder's decision not to go to a German cemetery, but instead lay a wreath in a Commonwealth cemetery in Ranville, where 322 German soldiers are buried with more than 2,000 soldiers from eight allied countries.
Chirac and his wife Bernadette greeted the leaders at the foot of a red carpet as they arrived for lunch at the Abbaye aux Hommes chateau. Schroeder lingered far longer than most other guests, chatting with Chirac, who rested his left hand on his German colleague's back.
The greeting for Bush and first lady Laura Bush, in contrast, was more perfunctory. When Bush emerged from his limousine, the two presidents shook hands quickly, Bush patted Bernadette Chirac on the back, and Chirac kissed Laura Bush's hand. Then the Bushes moved quickly inside.
Bush, lectured on Saturday night by Chirac for comparing World War II to the Iraq war, avoided such comparisons Sunday, instead celebrating the U.S. friendship with France. Telling the story of a woman from Colleville-sur-Mer who married an American G.I. who fought on Omaha Beach, Bush produced chuckles by declaring it "another fine moment in Franco-American relations."
Bush departed Europe on Sunday night for Sea Island, Ga., where he is hosting the G-8 Summit of world leaders this week.
Walter Rayman, 79, of Barnegat, N.J., was on his first visit to the beaches of Normandy since he landed at Omaha on D-Day. To him, the ceremony was a blur.
"Truthfully, I've got so much on my mind that it's hard to even consider their words," he said. "It's very difficult to be back here."
Staff writer Matt Mosk and special correspondents Pan Yuk in Ste.-Mere-Eglise and in Le Molay-Littry, and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.