The sun rises over Normandy's beaches on D-Day's 80th anniversary
Posted: June 6, 2024 - 6:29am

Christophe Receveur and his daughter Julie, of France, unfold an American flag he bought six month ago in Gettysburg, Penn., to mark D-Day, Thursday, June 6, 2024 on Utah Beach, Normandy. As the sun sets on the D-Day generation, it's rising again over Normandy beaches where soldiers fought and died exactly 80 years ago, kicking off intense anniversary commemorations Thursday against the backdrop of renewed war in Europe, in Ukraine. (AP Photo/John Leicester)

UTAH BEACH, France (AP) — As the sun sets on the D-Day generation, it rose again over Normandy beaches where soldiers fought and died exactly 80 years ago Thursday, kicking off intense anniversary commemorations against the backdrop of renewed war in Europe, in Ukraine.

Ever-dwindling numbers of World War II veterans who have pilgrimaged back to France, and Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine that has dashed hopes that lives and cities wouldn't again be laid to waste in Europe, are making the poignant anniversary of the June 6, 1944, Allied landings even more so 80 years on.

As now-centenarian veterans revisit old memories and fallen comrades buried in Normandy graves, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's presence at D-Day commemorations with world leaders who are supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion — including United States President Joe Biden — will inevitably fuse together World War II's awful past with the fraught present on Thursday.

The break of dawn almost eight decades exactly after Allied troops waded ashore under hails of gunfire on five code-named beaches — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword — kicked off a day of remembrance by Allied nations now standing together again behind Ukraine — and with World War II ally Russia not invited by host France. It cited Russia's “war of aggression against Ukraine that has intensified in recent weeks" for the snub.

With the dead and wounded on both sides in Ukraine estimated in the hundreds of thousands, commemorations for the more than 4,400 Allied dead on D-Day and many tens of thousands more, including French civilians, killed in the ensuing Battle of Normandy are tinged with concerns that World War II lessons are being lost.

French President Emmanuel Macron told D-Day veterans on Thursday that ″France will never forget″ their battle to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

“There are things worth fighting for," said World War II veteran Walter Stitt, who fought in tanks and turns 100 in July, as he visited Omaha Beach this week. "Although I wish there was another way to do it than to try to kill each other.”

“We’ll learn one of these days, but I won’t be around for that,” he said.

Conscious of the inevitability that major D-Day anniversaries will soon take place without World War II veterans, huge throngs of aficionados in uniforms and riding vehicles of the time, and tourists soaking up the spectacle, have flooded Normandy for the 80th anniversary.

“It’s so historic and we just have to remember the sacrifices of everybody who gave us our freedom,” said Becky Kraubetz, a Briton now living in Florida whose grandfather served with the British Army during World War II and was captured in Malta.

“It gives you goosebumps, everything that happened here. Imagine just jumping into the water, freezing cold,” the 54-year-old said as she gazed across the English Channel, tears in her eyes. “The bravery, the courage, for people to face that is just unbelievable — very, very humbled to be here.”

She was among a crowd of thousands of people that stretched for several kilometers (miles) along Utah Beach, the westernmost of the D-Day beaches.

In a quiet spot away from the official ceremonies, France's Christophe Receveur performed his own tribute, unfurling an American flag he had bought on a trip to Pennsylvania to honor those who died on D-Day.

“To forget them is to let them die all over again,” the 57-year-old said as he and his daughter, Julie, then carefully refolded the flag into a tight triangle, adding that those now dying in Ukraine fighting the invading Russian army were also on his mind.

“All these troops came to liberate a country that they didn't know for an ideology — democracy, freedom — that is under severe strain now,” he said.

The fair-like atmosphere fueled by World War II-era jeeps and trucks tearing down hedge-rowed lanes so deadly for Allied troops who fought dug-in German defenders, and of reenactors playing at war on sands where D-Day soldiers fell, leave open the question of what meaning anniversaries will have once the veterans are gone.

But at the 80th, they're the VIPs of commemorations across the Normandy coast where the largest-ever land, sea and air armada punctured Hitler’s defenses in Western Europe and helped precipitate his downfall 11 months later.

“They really were the golden generation, those 17-, 18-year-old guys doing something so brave,” said James Baker, a 56-year-old from the Netherlands, reflecting as dawn broke on Utah Beach.

Farther up the coast on Gold Beach, a military bagpiper played at precisely the time that British troops landed there 80 years ago.

The United Kingdom's King Charles III and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak were among those at a ceremony later in the day to honor the troops who landed there and on Sword Beach, while Prince William and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined others at ceremony for the Canadian troops who landed on Juno Beach.

In his address, the king told the crowd that the world was fortunate that a generation “did not flinch" when they were called upon.

“Our obligation to remember what they stood for and what they achieved for us all can never diminish,” he said.

Speaking in French, Charles also paid tribute to the “unimaginable number” of French civilians killed in the battle for Normandy, and the bravery and sacrifice of the French Resistance.

Biden was to take part in a ceremony later at the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

Those who traveled to Normandy include women who were among the millions who built bombers, tanks and other weaponry and played other vital World War II roles that were long overshadowed by the combat exploits of men.

“We weren’t doing it for honors and awards. We were doing it to save our country. And we ended up helping save the world,” said 98-year-old Anna Mae Krier, who worked as a riveter building B-17 and B-29 bombers.

Feted wherever they go in wheelchairs and walking with canes, veterans are using their voices to repeat their message they hope will live eternal: Never forget.

“To know the amount of people who were killed here, just amazing,” 98-year-old Allan Chatwin, who served with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, said as he visited Omaha, the deadliest of the Allied beaches on D-Day.

He quickly added: “I don't know that amazing is the word.”