Standing alone in the fearful symmetry of a seaside cemetery above Omaha Beach, President Clinton tried with the power of mere words to repay a debt incurred in blood.
In phrases that echoed among the careful rows of 9,386 white marble markers of the American Cemetery, Clinton on Monday summoned the spirits of heroes past to inspire today’s generations to carry on the mission of the men who gave their lives here.
“They were the fathers we never knew, the uncles we never met, the friends who never returned, the heroes we can never repay,” said Clinton, gazing out on the rows of still, green graves. “They gave us our world. And those simple sounds of freedom we hear today are their voices speaking to us across the years.”
As the President rose to speak, the skies that had been damp and leaden all day suddenly cleared. By the end of his brief address, the impressive tableau above the beach was bathed in slanting sunlight and the warships at anchor offshore were sharply outlined against the blue of the sea.
Clinton spoke of the men who came ashore that fateful day, every one a hero. Gesturing to the hundreds of D-day veterans in the audience in front of him, Clinton said, “Today, many of them are here among us. Oh, they may walk with a little less spring in their step and their ranks are growing thinner. But let us never forget, when they were young, these men saved the world.”
The President, who was born a year after World War II ended, asked the veterans to stand and he applauded them.
Monday’s speech marking the 50th anniversary of the D-day landings that began the liberation of Europe was, by far, Clinton’s most effective ceremonial moment as President. It appeared, at least for the moment, to assuage some of the misgivings many in America and overseas have felt about his stature as a world leader.
It has been difficult for the informal, 47-year-old career politician from Arkansas to embody the majesty of his office and the authority of commander in chief of the most powerful armed forces in the world. His avoidance of the draft in the Vietnam War and his evasive explanations for his actions have alienated many in the American military.
This eight-day journey of remembrance to battle sites in Europe was designed in some measure to reassure active military and those who served before them that Clinton understands their concerns and takes seriously the awesome power of his office.
But more than that, the voyage was a tribute to the millions who served in the great crusade half a century ago to free a world from tyranny. While the heads of state and government of 11 wartime allies were the appointed spokespersons of their nations, the true stars of the show were the veterans, who came by the thousands to Normandy this season to remember and to grieve and to cry.
Kalman Lewis, 69, was a 19-year-old kid from Passaic, N.J., who slogged ashore at Utah Beach 50 years ago Monday. He came to bless the graves of friends who never returned.
“If you’ve been in combat, you always choke up at the cemetery,” Lewis said, his eyes glistening and his voice cracking. “I hope the kids today never have to have a D-day in their lifetimes.”
Clinton’s 11-minute speech at the Normandy cemetery in the village of Colleville-sur-Mer capped a day of ceremonies that began before dawn on the aircraft carrier George Washington, anchored off the haunted beaches known 50 years ago as Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
On the massive carrier’s flight deck in a wet and whipping wind, the President led a brief service of remembrance for those lost at sea before they could even reach the blood-tinged tide of the invasion beaches.
A dozen American and Allied warships could barely be seen through the fog as Clinton spoke and greeted several D-day veterans brought to the carrier as guests of honor.
“We gather in the calm after sunrise today to remember that fateful morning, the pivot point of the war, perhaps the pivot point of the 20th Century,” Clinton said in remarks that began at 7:21 a.m.
He recalled the tense hours as the massive Allied flotilla sailed toward the Normandy shore, how the men passed their time in dice games or silent prayer, as their families back home begged the Lord for their safe return.
“The soldiers who landed on Utah and Omaha needed those prayers, for they entered a scene of terrible carnage,” Clinton said. “Thousands would never return.”
And he recalled the patriotic valor of one unidentified sailor aboard the destroyer Corry, which a German mine ripped in half like a child’s toy. As the ship went down, this sailor saved the flag from the submerging stern and scrambled to the main mast, where he raised the flag.
Of the 294 men aboard, 13 were killed and 33 injured.
“In the Corry’s destruction, there was no defeat,” Clinton said. “Today, the wreckage of that ship lies directly beneath us--an unseen monument to those who helped to win this great war.”
After the speeches concluded, Clinton and four veterans turned and walked a few steps to the starboard rail of the looming ship and committed a large green and purple wreath to the gray-green waves as a bugler played taps in the unseen distance.
Clinton’s next event was at Pointe-du-Hoc, the bloodied promontory where former President Ronald Reagan put in one of the greatest performances of his presidency.
Clinton aides were concerned that he would suffer by comparison. But the understated ceremony and Clinton’s words there were well received by the Ranger battalion veterans who came to listen.
As a misty rain fell, Clinton strode out to the edge of the cliffs that the Rangers scaled at grievous cost in the early hours of the invasion.
Addressing about 40 Ranger veterans who took the strategic 100-foot-high hill, Clinton said: “We look at this terrain and we marvel at your fight. . . . Here are the faces for whom you risked your lives. Here are the generations for whom you won a war. We are the children of your sacrifice. We are the sons and daughters you saved from tyranny’s reach.”
He then spoke of the challenge that the younger generations face in building upon the veterans’ success.
“Still, there are cliffs to scale. . . . And if we should ever falter, we need only remember you at this spot 50 years ago, and you, again, at this spot today. The flame of your youth became freedom’s lamp, and we see its light reflected in your faces still, and in the faces of your children and grandchildren.”
The President strode the slippery, cratered ground atop the cliffs with Ken Bargmann, a Ranger who survived the deadly climb up the hill on D-day only to be taken prisoner the next day. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in eastern Germany.
Clinton and Bargmann walked with Bargmann’s son, Michael, a disabled Vietnam veteran, and his grandson, Kyle. “You completed your mission here,” Clinton told the veterans. “But the mission of freedom goes on; the battle continues. The longest day is not yet over.”
Chilly Utah Beach
Clinton next traveled by helicopter to Utah Beach for a commemorative event hosted by French President Francois Mitterrand.
The day was growing colder and both leaders were in overcoats before the hourlong ceremony ended. It was fairly standard fare--national anthems, military bands, a review of troops.
Clinton gave his briefest speech here, only six minutes long, giving thanks to “the thousands of people who gave everything they were, or what they might become, so that freedom might live.”
The leaders then went to Caen, an important military objective of Operation Overlord, for a luncheon for the heads of state and government of 11 nations that were wartime allies--the United States, France, Britain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Norway, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium and Canada.
The luncheon was held in Caen’s Hotel de la Prefecture, a regional government building. The city’s lampposts were decorated with red, white and blue banners commemorating D-day’s 50th anniversary.
Omaha Beach Emotion
At Omaha Beach, nine company-sized troop formations representing nations involved in the invasion lined up on the sand to greet the dignitaries, who included Queen Elizabeth II, who arrived in a royal red helicopter.
Clinton and the other leaders walked among the troops and several dozen veterans of the horrific landing at Omaha. The ceremonies included a flyover by World War II aircraft and silent reflection at the Monument to the Dead.
At one point, the queen spoke to ranks of veterans, in formation in the wet sand, observing: “I am proud to see so many veterans of Operation Overlord, one of the most remarkable amphibious operations ever accomplished. You, and the widows of those who fought, will be remembering the deeds that were done that day, the comrades and husbands who never returned and those who did come home but sadly are no longer with us.
“It was you and your comrades and allies fighting on other fronts who delivered Europe from that yoke of organized barbarism from which the men and women of following generations have been mercifully free.”
To the soldiers, many openly choked with emotion, she declared: “Veterans of the Normandy campaign, you deserve your nations’ thanks! May we, your fellow countrymen, be worthy of what you did for us.”
After the events on the beach, Clinton made his way to the American Cemetery for the signature event of the day, his address to American D-day veterans and homage to those who did not come home.
He honored not only the Americans who fought and died here but also the 40 million victims of history’s most gruesome conflict. He said the mission for his generation and those that follow is “to expand freedom’s reach forward; to test the full potential of each of our own citizens; to strengthen our families, our faith and our communities; to fight indifference and intolerance; to keep our nation strong; and to light the lives of those still dwelling in the darkness of undemocratic rule.”
In a speech that served for many back home as a history lesson of an event far removed in time, and for many in the audience as an emotional remembrance of a day that seems so close, Clinton quoted from a letter a young GI, Cpl. Frank Elliot, wrote to his wife just before setting sail for Normandy.
“I miss hamburgers a la Coney Island, American beer a la Duquesne, American shows a la Penn Theater, and American girls a la you,” Elliot wrote his wife, Pauline, and his year-old daughter.
Clinton said that millions of American GIs returned from Europe and the Pacific to rebuild America and enjoy the quiet pleasures of peace.
“But on this field,” Clinton said, “there are 9,386 who did not--33 pairs of brothers; a father and his son; 11 men from tiny Bedford, Virginia; and Cpl. Frank Elliot, killed near these bluffs by a German shell on D-day.”
Times staff writer William Tuohy contributed to this report.
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