Standing on the shores of the historic Omaha Beach landing, President Obama paid tribute Saturday to the thousands of servicemen who gave their lives in the D-day invasion 65 years ago and cast it as inspiration for the struggles of today.
Obama recalled the German fire that rained down on the troops as they took the beaches of Normandy, which he called “the story of America.”
“It is a story that has never come easy, but one that always gives us hope,” he said in a speech to a sea of veterans and their families. “For as we face down the hardships and struggles of our time, and arrive at that hour for which we were born, we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore.”
The anniversary of the June 6, 1944, invasion falls as the new U.S. president works to build global alliances to fight violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons and support peace efforts in the Middle East.
The ceremonies came at the end of Obama’s trip to the Middle East and Europe, in which he pressed world leaders for support on those initiatives. Joining the president for the Normandy event were leaders of wartime allies France, Canada and Britain.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy compared the fight against Nazism and fascism to the current challenge.
“We know how far we still have to go,” Sarkozy said. “We know it is a long and difficult way. But we also know how much a united Europe and an America true to its values can achieve together.”
As American and French flags waved overhead, Obama recounted the story of the D-day invasion.
For centuries, no invader had been able to enter Normandy from the English Channel, and it was never more difficult than it was that day.
Adolf Hitler had ordered the fortification of the Atlantic Wall against a seaborne invasion, and the steep cliffs from Norway to southern France were lined with machine guns and artillery, the beaches with mines and sharpened poles.
The Allies attacked at dawn. The British air corps had tried to strike the cliffs while airborne troops parachuted behind the enemy lines, but bad weather thwarted the strikes and the paratroopers missed their mark. So the troopers taking the beach at Omaha faced overwhelming resistance, and many died before ever leaving their ships.
Nevertheless, Allied troops reached shore, at beaches they called Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword. Paratroopers regrouped, Rangers climbed the cliffs. By the end of the day, as Obama put it, “the ground on which we stand was free once more,” which he called a tribute to the “clarity of purpose” with which the Allies waged war.
The veterans gathered Saturday, said Obama, “remind us that, in the end, human destiny is not determined by forces beyond our control.”
“You remind us that our future is not shaped by mere chance or circumstance,” he said. “Our history has always been the sum total of the choices made and the actions taken by each individual man or woman. It has always been up to us.”
Those present for the ceremony included Susan Eisenhower, whose grandfather Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower began the Normandy mission with the simple charge, “OK, let’s go.”
Tom Hanks, who starred in the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” which portrayed the carnage of the invasion, sat near former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), a World War II veteran.
Also in the audience was Obama’s great-uncle Charles Payne, who was part of the first American division to reach and liberate a Nazi concentration camp in Germany.
Before the ceremony, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walked past troops representing U.S., French, Canadian and British forces, then met with veterans of the D-day invasion at a spot overlooking Omaha Beach.
One of them was Ben Franklin of Knoxville, Tenn., who recalled storming the beach as a young sergeant and machine gunner.
After years of speaking and lecturing on the experience, he said, Saturday was his last.
“This will be the end,” he said. “I will go home and relax now.”