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World leaders in helicopters, veterans in wheelchairs, mark 75th anniversary of D-Day

Members of Britain’s Red Arrows, a flying display team of the Royal Air Force, fly over an event in Portsmouth on June 5, 2019, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

PORTSMOUTH, England — The world leaders arrived in helicopters and armored convoys surrounded by massive security.

The aging veterans came in wheelchairs, aided by canes, leaning on children and grandchildren.

They gathered here Wednesday, at one of the key launch points, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings — still the largest combined naval, air and land assault in history.

French President Emmanuel Macron read a letter from a resistance fighter named Henri Fertet, who was executed at age 16. “I am going to die for my country,” he wrote in French to his parents. “I do not doubt that you will remain courageous, if only out of love for me.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May read another letter, penned by British Army Capt. Norman Skinner to his wife, Gladys, on the eve of landings at Normandy’s beaches, a day that would change the face of the war. 

Skinner recalled the sweet afternoons of tea in the garden with his children: “Although I would give anything to be back with you, I have not yet had any wish at all to back down from the job we have to do.” He told her that he loved her. The letter was in his pocket when he was killed the next day.

President Trump was here, concluding a state visit to Britain in which he was feted by the royal family. But on this day, in this place, it wasn’t about him.

When Trump took the stage, he read from a prayer that President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke over the radio to the country on the eve of D-Day. “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity,” he said.

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Some 300 veterans of the D-Day assault to liberate Europe were also on hand. 

Arthur Hampson turned 93 on Wednesday. On D-Day, he was an 18-year-old midshipman ferrying Canadian soldiers and Sherman tanks to Juno Beach, one of the five landing sites. They successfully landed four of the tanks, but one fell into the sea and two crew members drowned.

Hampson told The Washington Post: “I don’t regard myself as a hero. We had a job to do. We didn’t want to let anyone down. But we also didn’t want to die.” He said that if he were shot, he hoped the bullet would go clean through and kill him.

He returned to Portsmouth that same night and sipped a quiet pint in a pub. He recalled thinking to himself, “I can’t believe what we’d gone through that day.”

The commemorations began in the morning at the Portsmouth harbor, where Queen Elizabeth II wore a bright pink dress and sat next to Trump and Prince Charles, her son.

Addressing the crowd from her box, the queen said that when she attended events marking the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, some thought they would be her last. “But the wartime generation — my generation — is resilient, and I am delighted to be with you in Portsmouth today,” she said.

The queen kept it short and simple, and there was power there. “On behalf of the entire country — indeed the whole free world — that I say to you all, thank you,” she said.

It was a poignant affair, with military bands playing somber music as black and white film clips were shown from the stage, depicting the faces of young men running onto beaches and readying to jump out of planes. There was also a dance routine featuring the 1941 Andrews Sisters hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” 

On June 6, 1944, about 7,000 naval vessels, including battleships, destroyers and assault craft, attacked German positions on the Normandy coast and landed more than 132,000 ground troops on the beaches.

Historians consider the D-Day invasion “the beginning of the end of the war” and stress that it was an international effort. The fighting in Normandy went on for a month.

John Jenkins, 99, was with the Royal Pioneer Corps when he landed at Gold Beach. He recalled digging holes in the ground to get a few hours of sleep and being ever worried about treading on mines. Asked about the fear, he told The Post, “You didn’t show it, but you felt it.”

He said that “young people today need to know what happened, because if it didn’t happen, they’d all be wearing swastikas today.” 

Jenkins added that “Trump was most welcome” at the commemorations. “I know the Americans didn’t come into it until a bit later, but they did do their part,” he said. 

Some of the hardest fighting on D-Day was done by U.S. troops at Omaha Beach, where about 2,000 of them died. An additional 238 U.S. airborne troops were killed dropping into enemy territory behind the landing beaches.

In a wide-ranging interview on the eve of his trip to honor war veterans, Trump was asked why he didn’t fight in Vietnam.

Trump, like many of his generation, received multiple deferments; four student deferments during college and a medical disqualification because of bone spurs in his heels.

“I would not have minded that at all. I would have been honored” to serve, Trump told British broadcaster Piers Morgan. “I think I make up for it right now,” serving as president, he said.

D-Day veteran Jenkins — who landed on Gold Beach — said he had no problem with all the politicians at the Portsmouth event, that it made sense for them to commemorate the world war.

“I suppose it is important,” he said, “because we don’t want another one.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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Adam reported from London.