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World leaders and veterans honor the invasion that turned the tide of WWII

June 6, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
It was a military assault unlike anything the world had ever seen: In 1944, well over 150,000 allied troops landed in France to fight the Nazis. On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, President Obama and other world leaders gathered at Normandy to salute the U.S. troops who stormed the shore and changed the course of the second World War. Judy Woodruff reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Heads of state and surviving members of the armed services who bravely fought on the shores of Normandy, France, on this day in 1944 returned there today to mark the anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

As the sun rose over the English Channel this morning, American veterans in their 80s and 90s gathered to remember the day they came ashore on Omaha Beach to fight the Nazis.

DON MCCARTHY, World War II Veteran: Very special moment in my life. I’m so filled with joy right now, I can hardly control myself. Thanks, guy, for being here.

MAN: Six o’clock D-Day, landing time for the first beachhead boats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Seventy years ago, Omaha was one of five beaches in Normandy where well over 150,000 Allied troops fought their way into France.

In the only color film footage of D-Day shot by director George Stevens, You see some of the more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft that took part. By the end of that first day, the Allies had a vital foothold. But it came at a high price. More than 20,000 Americans died at Normandy, including the 9,387 who lie in the American cemetery next to Omaha Beach.

President Obama paid tribute to them today.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America’s claim, our commitment to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being, that claim is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity. Normandy, this was democracy’s beachhead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Of the 16 million American World War II veterans, only a little over one million are still alive. Mr. Obama said it’s important their stories are passed on.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are on this earth for only a moment in time. And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago. So we have to tell their stories for them. We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: French President Francois Hollande vowed his country will always remember those who sacrificed their lives that day.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, France (through interpreter): They were your parents, your brothers, your friends. They were our liberators. France will never forget what she owes to these soldiers, what she owes to the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, British veterans, politicians and royal family members attended a service of remembrance at Bayeux Cathedral. It escaped damage during the war, and the city was the first one liberated in Normandy.

Later, on the sands of Sword Beach, where British forces landed, hundreds of dignitaries and veterans gathered for another ceremony. Queen Elizabeth II arrived to a loud round of applause. The 88-year-old monarch is one of the few remaining heads of state who actively served during the war, as a driver and auto mechanic.

Today’s events were the culmination of commemorative activities all this week. Military reenactments took place along the five famous beaches. And in the skies over Normandy, there were special parachute jumps by veterans; 93-year old American Jim Martin jumped near Utah Beach.

JIM MARTIN, WWII veteran: Wonderful.

QUESTION: Was it different from…

JIM MARTIN: Oh, yes. Nobody is shooting at me. Yes, it was — it’s much nicer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eighty-nine-year-old Scotsman Jock Hutton took a tandem jump into the very same field in Ranville, France, where he landed 70 years ago.

JOCK HUTTON, WWII Veterans: We trained for months and months and months, and we landed with one purpose in mind, and that was to liberate Ranville, which we did before first light.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in the United States today, veterans attended a ceremony at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. Bob Sales from Madison Heights, Virginia, was in the first wave of soldiers to land. His wife spoke for him today.

ALICE SALES: We have to make sure that there might never come a day when June the 6th means no more than any other day, that there might never be a generation of Americans for whom the name Normandy means nothing at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To enshrine that history, the National World War II Memorial in Washington was built 10 years ago. Today, veterans laid wreaths in front of the wall of gold stars that represent all the Americans who died in the war.