COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — They had rushed these shores of Normandy 70 years ago in a daring gambit to expel despotism from Europe, and on Friday they returned as members of a disappearing generation to commemorate D-Day.
More than 200 D-Day veterans gathered at Omaha Beach in northern France to reflect on their sacrifices and salute their country. But as President Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and Russian President Vladimir Putin honored them and other World War II veterans, there was a palpable sense that the men — many of them in their 90s — standing proudly on stage, or sitting in wheelchairs, might be gathering here for the last time.
Obama and French President François Hollande delivered stirring tributes under a blue, sunny sky, the rolling waves of the ocean providing a calm antidote to the violent moment when Allied forces besieged this land and began the liberation of France. F-15 fighter jets flew above in “missing man” formation, and 14,000 people stood in honor.
Yet for people on both sides of the Atlantic, the 70th D-Day anniversary unfolded against a backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine, which some Western leaders say is a sign that the fight for democracy in Europe is not yet over.
In brief moments on the sidelines of these events, Obama, Putin and the newly elected president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, engaged in a bit of informal diplomacy to see whether it would be possible to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has led to the biggest rift in relations between Western governments and the increasingly authoritarian regime in Moscow.
“Here, we don’t just commemorate victory, as proud of that victory as we are; we don’t just honor sacrifice, as grateful as the world is; we come to remember why America and our allies gave so much for the survival of liberty at its moment of maximum peril,” Obama said at the Normandy American Cemetery. “And we come to tell the story of the men and women who did it, so that it remains seared into the memory of the future world.”
On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 American, British, Canadian and other Allied D-Day troops risked their lives to begin reclaiming Nazi-occupied Western Europe that day.
The D-Day invasion accelerated the end of the war in Europe and helped alter the course of history. It cracked Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s western front as Soviet troops made advances on the ground in the east. And the amphibious invasion launched the weeks-long Battle of Normandy, which brought the Allies to Paris and pushed the Nazis out.
But 70 years later, the Americans and Russians came to Normandy not united against a common enemy but in a confrontation with one another over Putin’s decision to annex the autonomous Ukrainian region of Crimea earlier this year and provide support for separatists in the east who are stirring unrest and violence.
Obama has spent the week in Europe criticizing Putin and pledging the United States remains as committed as it has ever been to the continent’s security. He and other Western leaders expelled Russia from a summit of world powers.
And in Poland on Tuesday, Obama said Putin “was harnessing the dark tactics of the 20th century.”
But at a D-Day luncheon with other leaders held after the Normandy ceremony, the cold seemed to thaw, if only a little bit. Obama and Putin talked for 15 minutes — their first in-person meeting since the crisis began — an occasion Obama used to reiterate his demand that Putin take steps to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine.
Earlier at the luncheon, Putin met with Poroshenko, a sign that the Russian leader takes the new Ukrainian president seriously. Altogether, a senior U.S. administration official described the developments as “optimistic.”
But while the Ukranian crisis cast a shadow over the D-Day celebrations, neither Obama nor Hollande addressed the geopolitics of the moment at the main event.
In his tribute to the veterans — some of whom fudged their ages so they could go to war earlier, some of whom were told they were too uneducated to pilot a plane and so became paratroopers instead — Obama drew a direct line between their stories and the physical geography of the land.
“America’s claim — our commitment — to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being, that claim is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity,” he said.
The lush grounds of the memorial were strikingly different from other, sterile war monuments, and they were meticulously maintained. People who had come to the event walked down onto Omaha Beach and then struggled to climb the steep stairs back up to the cemetery’s grounds, with only their imaginations telling them what it would have been like under constant fire.
And the mass of news media that descended on the cemetery did not take away from more quaint moments, such as the active duty soldier casually interviewing a survivor of D-Day who had also survived cancer.
Recalling the stories of the veterans who made it here to commemorate the day, Obama connected their sacrifices to those of another generation — “this 9/11 generation of service members” — who also “chose to serve a cause that’s greater than self.”
And in telling the stories of the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, he pledged that “future generations, whether 70 or 700 years hence, will gather at places like this to honor them — and to say that these were generations of men and women who proved once again that the United States of America is and will remain the greatest force for freedom the world has ever known.”
The president brought his personal stories to the moment, talking about his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, who served in Gen. George S. Patton’s army. In impromptu remarks, he said, “As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.”
And he related his close bond with Army Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, whom he first met in Normandy five years ago during the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Remsburg suffered severe injuries in Afghanistan, and Obama has checked up on him over the years. He featured him in this year’s State of the Union address.
“Over the past five years, Cory has grown stronger, learning to speak again, and stand again and walk again,” Obama said. “And earlier this year, he jumped out of a plane again. The first words Cory said to me after his accident echoed those words first shouted all those years ago on this beach: ‘Rangers lead the way.’ ”
After their remarks, Obama and Hollande laid a wreath and stood for a 21-gun salute. Then they walked over to a grassy overlook to observe Omaha Beach directly. Obama put his hand on Hollande’s back, and the two pointed out to sea.