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D-Day anniversary haunted by dwindling number of veterans and shadowed by Europe’s new war

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OMAHA BEACH, France — As young soldiers, they waded through breaking waves and gunfire to battle the Nazis. Now bent with age, the dwindling number of World War II veterans joined a new generation of leaders on Thursday to honor the dead, the living and the fight for democracy on the shores where they landed 80 years ago on D-Day.

The war in Ukraine shadowed the ceremonies in Normandy, a grim modern-day example of lives and cities that are again suffering through war in Europe. Ukraine’s president was greeted with a standing ovation and cheers. Russia, a crucial World War II ally whose full-scale invasion of its smaller neighbor in 2022 set Europe on a new path of war, was not invited.

The 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 were tinged with fear that World War II lessons are fading.

“There are things worth fighting for,” said 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.

U.S. President Joe Biden directly linked Ukraine’s fight for its young democracy to the battle to defeat Nazi Germany.

“To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators is simply unthinkable,” Biden said. “If we were to do that, it means we’d be forgetting what happened here on these hallowed beaches.”

As now-centenarian veterans revisited old memories and fallen comrades buried in Normandy graves, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presence at the international D-Day commemoration fused World War II’s awful past with the fraught present. The dead and wounded on both sides in Ukraine are estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

Despite Russia’s absence, French President Emmanuel Macron paid homage to those who fought on the eastern front “and the resolute commitment of the Red Army and all the people who were part of the then-Soviet Union.”

But it was the landing on June 6, 1944, and the battles in Normandy that followed that ultimately drove the Nazis from France.

“You came here because the free world needed each and every one of you, and you answered the call,” Macron said. “You came here to make France a free nation. You’re back here today at home, if I may say.”

The French president awarded the Legion of Honor to 14 U.S. veterans and a British female veteran. Among the Americans was Edward Berthold, a pilot who carried out his three missions over France in May 1944, before taking part in an operation in Saint-Lo, in Normandy, on D-Day. He flew 35 combat missions in all during World War II.

Berthold later read aloud a letter he’d written home the next day, showing that even as a young man he was aware of D-Day’s importance.

“Wednesday night, June 7th, 1944. Dear Mom, just a few lines to tell you we are all ok. We flew mission number 10 on D-Day,” he wrote. “It certainly was a terrific show, what we could see. This is what everyone has been waiting for.”

Macron also bestowed the Legion of Honor on 103-year-old Christian Lamb, the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral who was studying in Normandy in 1939 when her father called her back to London. There, Lamb created detailed maps that guided the crews of landing craft on D-Day.

The French president bent down to Lamb in a wheelchair, pin the medal and kiss her on both cheeks, describing her as one of the “heroes in the shadows.”

Conscious of the inevitability of age and time for World War II veterans, throngs of aficionados in period uniforms and vehicles, along with tourists soaking up the spectacle, flooded Normandy for the 80th anniversary. At the international ceremony later, the veterans received a standing ovation as they were paraded before the stands in a stately line of wheelchairs to avoid the long walk across the beachfront promenade.

“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. 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 pomp, France’s Christophe Receveur offered 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, carefully refolded the flag into a tight triangle. 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.

For Warren Goss, a 99-year-old American veteran of D-Day who landed in the first waves on Utah Beach, the sacrifice was affirmed by a visit years later to the same place where his comrades fell.

“I looked at the beach and it was beautiful, all the people, the kids were playing and I see the boys and girls were walking, holding hands, with their life back,” he told the Danish king and prime minister, who hung on his words.

The fair-like atmosphere on the five code-named beaches — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword — was 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.

But the real VIPs of the commemorations across the Normandy coast were the veterans who took part in the largest-ever land, sea and air armada that 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 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 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 at 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.

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.

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

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

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London, and Jeffrey Schaeffer, Mark Carlson, Bela Szandelszky, Helena Alves and Alex Turnbull along the Normandy coast, contributed to this report.

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