APTOPIX France D-Day Anniversary

A World War II veteran salutes as he poses for a photograph at the end of a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day at the Bayeux War Cemetery in Bayeux, Normandy, France, Thursday, June 6, 2019. World leaders gathered Thursday in France to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.(AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

OMAHA BEACH, France — Standing on the windswept beaches and bluffs of Normandy, a dwindling number of aging veterans of history’s greatest air and sea invasion received the thanks and praise of a world transformed by their sacrifice.

The mission now, they said, was to honor the dead and keep their memory alive, 75 years after the D-Day operation that portended the end of World War II.

“We know we don’t have much time left, so I tell my story so people know it was because of that generation, because of those guys in this cemetery,” said 99-year-old Steve Melnikoff of Maryland, standing at Colleville-Sur-Mer, where thousands of Americans are buried.

“All these generals with all this brass that don’t mean nothing,” he said. “These guys in the cemetery, they are the heroes.”

Thursday’s anniversary was marked with eloquent speeches, profound silences — and passionate pleas for an end to bloodshed.

French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump praised the soldiers, sailors and airmen who took part in the invasion, codenamed Operation Overlord, saying it was the turning point that ended Nazi tyranny and ensured peace for Europe.

“You are the pride of our nation, you are the glory of our republic, and we thank you from the bottom of our heart,” Trump said of the warriors who took part in what he called the ultimate fight of good against evil in World War II.

“They battled not for control and domination, but for liberty, democracy and self-rule,” Trump said in a speech at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of five landing beaches.

Macron saluted the courage, generosity and strength of spirit that made them press on “to help men and women they didn’t know, to liberate a land most hadn’t seen before, for no other cause but freedom, democracy.”

He expressed France’s debt to the United States for freeing his country from the Nazis. Macron awarded five American veterans with the Chevalier of Legion of Honor, France’s highest award.

“We know what we owe to you, veterans, our freedom,” he said, switching from French to English. “On behalf of my nation I just want to say ‘thank you.’”

About 160,000 troops took part in D-Day, and many more fought in the ensuing Battle of Normandy. Of those 160,000, 73,000 were from the United States, while 83,000 were from Britain and Canada. Troops started landing overnight from the air, then were joined by a massive force by sea on the beaches of Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold, carried by 7,000 boats.

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