President Barack Obama has paid poetic tribute to the men who breached “Hitler’s Wall” and stormed ashore to liberate Europe on D-Day, saying their sacrifice secured a still-evolving age of democracy and freedom.
Obama, speaking as a commander-in-chief who wound down the Iraq war and will end US combat in Afghanistan this year, movingly told the dwindling numbers of living D-Day survivors at the Omaha Beach American cemetery in Normandy on Friday, that their legacy was safe with a fresh generation of veterans.
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 walked 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.
“By the end of that longest day, this beach had been fought, lost, refought and won – a piece of Europe once again liberated and free. Hitler’s Wall was breached, letting loose Patton’s Army to pour into France.”
Despite weaving a parable of great deeds and individual sacrifice, Obama could not prevent his own resentment at the rush to judgment of modern media culture seep into his remarks, delivered from a monument gazing out at row after row of marble crosses graves in a cemetery where 9387 soldiers killed during the Battle of Normandy lie buried.
He recalled how at first, the invasion did not go well, raising the prospect of what would have been a devastating reverse for the allies.
“In our age of instant commentary, the invasion would have been swiftly and roundly declared, as it was by one officer, ‘a debacle.'”
But he also cited the heroism of World War II veterans and the humility of the survivors who made it home as an antidote to modern-day selfishness at an event also attended by French President Francois Hollande.
“Whenever the world makes you cynical – stop and think of these men,” he said, hailing the deeds of American Wilson Colwell who lied about his age to get into the Army and jumped into Normandy with the 101st Airborne on D-Day, aged 16, and returned Friday to honour his comrades.
Obama was on the final day of a four-day tour of Europe dedicated to renewing the NATO alliance and reassuring US allies that America’s security guarantees to the continent it helped liberate 70 years ago, remain absolute.
He drew a clear line between the fruit of World War II struggles and political strife.
“Omaha, Normandy – this was democracy’s beachhead. And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well-being of all posterity,” he said.
“We worked to turn old adversaries into new allies. We built new prosperity. We stood once more with the people of this continent through a long twilight struggle until finally, a wall tumbled down, and an Iron Curtain, too.
“From Western Europe to East; from South America to southeast Asia; 70 years of democratic movements spread. Nations that once knew only the blinders of fear began to taste the blessings of freedom.”
After sending thousands of young men and women off to war himself, Obama also paid homage to America’s new generation of warriors.
“Gentlemen, I want each of you to know that your legacy is in good hands,” Obama told the D-Day veterans in the crowd.
“For in a time when it has never been more tempting to pursue narrow self-interest and slough off common endeavour, this generation of Americans – our men and women of war – have chosen to do their part as well.”