COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France – Seventy years after Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, President Barack Obama returned Friday to this hallowed battleground in what he called a “powerful manifestation of America’s commitment to human freedom” that lives on in a new generation.
“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,” Obama said on a morning that dawned glorious and bright over the sacred site he called “democracy’s beachhead.”
Obama spoke from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where nearly 10,000 white marble tombstones sit on a bluff overlooking the site of the June 6, 1944, battle’s most violent fighting at Omaha Beach. He described D-Day’s violent scene in vivid terms, recalling that “by daybreak, blood soaked the water” and “thousands of rounds bit into flesh and sand.”
Veterans of that fierce battle traveled long distances to the remote historic site and removed their hats as the audience delivered a long standing ovation when Obama recognized them.
“These men waged war so that we might know peace,” Obama said. “They sacrificed so that we might be free. They fought in hopes of a day when we’d no longer need to fight. We are grateful to them.”
The anniversary commemoration is putting fractures in the World War II alliance on display, with Russian President Vladimir Putin attending events along with leaders who are standing against his aggressive moves into Ukraine.
Obama and Putin spoke on the sidelines of a lunch for the leaders, marking their first face-to-face conversation since the crisis in Ukraine erupted. The White House said the conversation was informal and lasted 10 to 15 minutes inside a chateau where the leaders ate lunch.
As leaders posed outside the building for a group photo before the lunch, Obama and Putin appeared to be avoiding each other deliberately. Obama chatted with Queen Elizabeth II and did not acknowledge Putin in front of the assembled media before the group went inside for the private meal.
But once inside, they made time for their first such exchange since Putin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. As the crisis as developed, Obama and Putin have spoken by phone, but haven’t met in person.
Obama’s speech at the morning ceremony came after he met privately with seven of the dwindling number of surviving troops who fought Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, along with seven members of the military who have served since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Among them was Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger who served 10 deployments and was severely wounded by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Obama recognized Remsburg at the emotional high-point of his State of the Union address this year, after first meeting him five years ago at the Normandy commemoration.
Obama held Remsberg up Friday as an example of the sacrifice of his generation, telling the D-Day veterans, “Your legacy is in good hands.”
“For in a time when it has never been more tempting to pursue narrow self-interest, to slough off common endeavor, this generation of Americans, a new generation, our men and women of war, have chosen to do their part as well,” Obama said.
He recognized the commitment that women and immigrants are making in today’s more diverse U.S. military.
The president mentioned that his grandfather served in Patton’s Army and his grandmother was among the many women who went to work supporting the war effort back home, in her case on a B-29 bomber assembly line. Obama’s grandparents helped raise him, and he broke from his prepared text to observe wistfully that there was never a time he missed his grandfather more or would have loved to be with him.
“Someday, future generations, whether seventy or seven hundred years hence, will gather at places like this to honor them,” Obama said. “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.”