Updated: Saturday, 07 June 2014 00:40 | By Agence France-Presse

'Humbled' Obama leads emotional D-Day tribute to veterans

Barack Obama led emotional tributes to D-Day veterans Friday, marking the 70th anniversary of the biggest seaborne assault in military history during which, in the words of France's president, "the fate of humanity was played out and decided."


'Humbled' Obama leads emotional D-Day tribute to veterans

US President Barack Obama and his French counterpart Francois Hollande participate in the 70th D-Day ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, on June 6, 2014 - by Pascal Rossignol

Some 1,800 veterans, dressed proudly in military uniform with medals glinting in the bright Normandy sunshine, rubbed shoulders with monarchs, presidents and prime ministers as they revisited the beaches they helped liberate on that historic day, many for the last time.

"Gentlemen, we are truly humbled by your presence today," a visibly moved Obama told veterans at Omaha beach as the elderly men, many of them in wheelchairs, struggled to their feet as the US president's words prompted a standing ovation.

He said their sacrifice and bravery had breached "Hitler's Wall" and secured today's era of democracy and freedom.

The president conjured up the moments of carnage and courage when Allied forces left an armada of boats early on June 6, 1944 in the English Channel and charged into a torrent of Nazi fire to liberate Europe.

"By daybreak, blood soaked the water, and bombs broke the sky. Thousands of paratroopers had dropped into the wrong landing sites; thousands of rounds bit into flesh and sand. Entire companies' worth of men fell in minutes. Hell's Beach had earned its name."

More than 156,000 troops waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944. Nearly 4,500 would be dead by the end of the day.

French President Francois Hollande said the spirit of the veterans would always grace the northern beaches in his country, pledging: "The gratitude of France will never, ever end."

"As the sun set on this longest day, a light came on across a Europe enslaved," said Hollande, who also paid tribute to the "courage of the Red Army" and the victims of Nazi Germany.

"On these now peaceful beaches, now matter how much time has passed, only one wind blows -- the wind of freedom," said the French president.

After Hollande's speech, gas flares sent fire and plumes of black smoke billowing into the air as images from the day played on giant screens and performers moved across the beach, many falling slowly to the ground in a moving reenactment of the horror 70 years ago.

- 'Poor buggers' -

In a ceremony full of colourful military pomp, Hollande welcomed a score of world leaders one-by-one as they processed up a red carpet, flanked by young children and a guard of honour.

The biggest cheers were reserved for Queen Elizabeth II, resplendent in a lime-green coat and matching hat and at the age of 88 on an increasingly rare foreign trip, and Obama himself.

But the stars of the show were undoubtedly the veterans, who lined up to receive some of the leaders as they made their way to the stands.

Earlier in the day, one British veteran, 89-year-old Ken Godfrey, was applauded by well-wishers who shouted "bravo" and "thank you" as, medals clinking on his chest, he walked the mile-long path to Bayeux cemetery for a service.

"My main memory is wading through the sea with water up to my chest," he told AFP. "But I don't like to talk about the fighting. If people ask, I just say we had a hairy time. But I'm lucky that I survived."

Bob Cowper, a 91-year-old Australian night fighter pilot who now uses a wheelchair, met his current prime minister Tony Abbott at the Bayeux ceremonies and told AFP that he flew over the beaches on D-Day as the fighting raged below.

"Looking down, even though we were making a contribution, I remember feeling empathy for all the poor buggers fighting on the ground."

It was Cowper's first trip back to Normandy and he beamed with pride at being present at the ceremonies.

"It's wonderful as an old man of 91 - it's like coming home."

- Awkward family photo -

While world leaders did their best to concentrate on the solemnity of the occasion, diplomatic wrangling over the Ukraine crisis provided an unwanted backdrop.

Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- at loggerheads over the crisis -- appeared to be doing their best to avoid each other at an awkward family photo although they later held a brief informal chat.

The gastro-diplomacy that began in Paris late Thursday continued as the leaders feasted on a meal concocted by four Michelin-starred chefs, consisting of John Dory fish, veal and a dessert of caramel and pear biscuit.

Obama and Putin dined just a few places away from each other, according to the official table plan.

The shuttle diplomacy appeared to have had some impact, as a potentially significant 15-minute meeting took place between Putin and Ukraine's president-elect Petro Poroshenko ahead of the lunch that resulted in a joint call for an end to bloodshed in the war-torn country.

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