"They won back this ground for civilization," President Trump said of the Allied troops who took part in the massive D-Day invasion 75 years ago today. Trump stood on a stage near Omaha Beach in northern France, alongside French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders who thanked U.S. veterans and their allies for preserving liberty.
The commemoration in Normandy, France, marks the 75th anniversary of the massive amphibious invasion in which more than 150,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops forced their way onto France's shores to bring the fight to Adolf Hitler. They were supported by nearly 7,000 naval vessels and more than 11,000 aircraft in one of the most important operations of World War II.
More than 160 World War II veterans sat in rows on a red-carpeted stage during the ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. They included dozens of men who landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
"You are the pride of our nation, you are the glory of the republic, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts," Trump told the veterans.
Trump noted that Allied fighters also came from Poland, Norway, Australia and other countries. "They were the citizens of free and independent nations, united by their duty to their compatriots and to millions yet unborn," he said.
The U.S. president told the stories of several veterans, including former Army medic Ray Lambert, 98, who sat on the stage behind him as Trump recounted Lambert's bravery and fortitude while serving in the 16th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division, known as "The Big Red One."
Both Lambert and his brother, Bill, survived a day that began with the massacre of thousands of U.S. soldiers on the beaches, the victims of artillery and intense German machine gun fire. Ray Lambert is credited with saving at least 15 men. Although wounded himself, he repeatedly pulled men out of the water and to safety. He stopped only when a landing craft's ramp broke his back, forcing him to crawl back onto the sand.
"Ray, the free world salutes you," Trump said, leading a long round of applause. Both Trump and Macron walked over to Lambert to shake his hand.
"They freed a land with no other compass than a cause which was greater than themselves — the cause of liberty," Macron said. "France has not forgotten. France has not forgotten those fighters to whom we owe the right to live in freedom."
Macron spoke of the masses of soldiers who followed, who came ashore in Europe to face battle-hardened troops from Nazi Germany, fighting to win the Battle of Normandy in Operation Overlord. Within three months of the D-Day landing, Allied forces liberated Paris from German occupation.
In English, Macron turned to the veterans on the stage and said: "We know that we owe to you, veterans, our freedom. On behalf of my nation, I just want to say thank you."
Both Macron and Trump spoke of the young men who did not make it home. Trump mentioned the graves of the nearly 10,000 young Americans who are buried near the beach that was code-named Omaha.
"Each one has been adopted by a French family that thinks of him as their own," Trump said. "They come from all over France to look after our boys. They kneel, they cry, they pray, they place flowers, and they never forget. Today, America embraces the French people and thanks you for honoring our beloved dead."
Amid the talk of courage and historic alliances and epic conflict, the ceremony included subtle hints of the complicated current political and social dynamics that are reshaping relationships between the U.S., the U.K., and their European allies.
In his speech, Macron pointedly linked the fight for freedom in World War II to longstanding alliances.
"We shall never cease to perpetuate the alliance of free people," Macron said, citing the creation of the United Nations at the end of the war. He added: "That is what the United States did when it created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. That is what, a few years later, the leaders of Europe did in bringing about the European Union."
The lessons of Colleville-sur-Mer and of World War II, Macron said, have taught us that liberty and democracy are inseparable.
Macron and Trump left the ceremony together, visiting the nearby cemetery with their wives. The two leaders met again later in the day for lunch.
There were at least seven flyovers to mark the D-Day anniversary. According to a pool report, the aircraft included 12 U.S. C-47 Skytrains and two P-51 fighters, along with modern transports and jets — including four F-15s that flew in a missing man formation.
"Despite the forecast of rain, the sun is shining on the American cemetery on the bluffs overlooking Omaha beach," NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Normandy. "There will be 10 ceremonies all along the coast today. Security is tight, with 6,000 police patrolling on land and sea, and drones and helicopters in the skies above."