In Normandy, Obama meets with veterans for a day of remembrance
June 7, 2009
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — President Barack Obama paid tribute Saturday to the veterans of D-Day, poignantly noting their ever-thinning ranks and "the sheer improbability" of their successful invasion of Normandy 65 years ago.
He acknowledged that as the years go by it doesn’t get any easier for veterans to make the trip. Though many of them are now well into their 80s, at least 135 veterans made the trip to France to commemorate the historic landings on the morning of June 6, 1944.
The passage of time and the veterans’ physical limitations were punctuated on the eve of the ceremony. Missing from the ranks at Normandy American Cemetery was James Norene, a 101st Airborne Division veteran who parachuted into northern France as part of the invasion force.
"Last night, after visiting this cemetery for one last time, he passed away in his sleep," Obama said before a crowd estimated at around 8,000.
"Jim was gravely ill when he left his home, and he knew that he might not return," the president continued. "But just as he did 65 years ago, he came anyway. May he now rest in peace with the boys he once bled with, and may his family always find solace in the heroism he showed here."
Norene’s passing obviously touched the veterans. After the 75-minute ceremony, Gerald "Red" Briggs, a Navy veteran who glimpsed the shore well before sunrise, choked up as he spoke of the commemoration.
"Every one of them realized why we are here," said Briggs, referring to the official party as well as to his fellow D-Day vets.
Still incredibly spry at 85, Briggs’ eyes watered up as he paused, and then finished his thought.
"It’s not the guys who lived," he said, nodding toward the thousands of white headstones, "it’s the ones who gave their lives."
During the ceremony, there was another crowd-stirring moment when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown mistakenly referred to Omaha Beach, which lies directly below the cemetery, as "Obama Beach." The verbal slip, coming as he fends off a challenge to his leadership, obscured an otherwise effective speech.
The successful invasion which led to the fall of Nazi Germany and the liberation of Europe, he said, "proves people can bend history in the direction of our best hopes."
Also speaking at the commemoration were French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Sitting with the four heads of state on the dais was Prince Charles of Britain.
At least a couple of the speakers posed the question of how to bring greater honor to the men who fought along the 50-mile-long stretch of the Normandy coast.
Today’s generation, Harper said, "needs to take the torch from their failing hands and carry it high."
Sarkozy struck a similar chord.
"The finest tribute we can pay them, perhaps the only one that really matters, is to attempt to be worthy of what they did for us," Sarkozy said in comments that were translated from French to English.
Additionally, the ceremony included the awarding of the French Legion of Honor to four Allied soldiers who took part in the invasion, including American Zane Schlemmer. Another 34 veterans also received the award over the course of the weekend.
The event also included, in reverse order, a ceremonial flyover of French, British and U.S. fighter jets, taps, a 21-gun salute and a wreath-laying.
It was during the wreath-laying portion of the program that the first rain drops began to fall. Though rain had been in the forecast all day, the timing seemed to lead some to think of Norene, and his sudden passing.