George W. Bush, Jacques Chirac and other European leaders gather to commemorate D-Day. And Chancellor Gerhard Schröder becomes the first German leader to attend the ceremonies, marking the turning point of WWII.
French President Jacques Chirac, right, and U.S. President George W. Bush at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-mer
United States President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac joined hundreds of veterans in Normandy on Sunday to remember the tens of thousands of Allied soldiers who perished during the D-Day landings 60 years ago, which marked the start of the American and British push towards Berlin.
French President Jacques Chirac, right, and U.S. President George W. Bush review an honor guard upon their arrival at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-mer.
"France will never forget," Chirac told the crowd at the American military cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, "that 6th of June, 1944, the day hope was reborn. It will never forget the men who made the supreme sacrifice to liberate our soil, our native land, our continent, from the yoke of Nazi barbarity and its murderous folly."
He added that America was an "everlasting friend," and that France would never forget its debt to the country, which helped bring Europe together in peace, freedom and democracy.
U.S. President Bush also honored the Allied veterans in his speech and said that "America would do this again for its friends." Bush also recalled the fact that former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who died in California on Saturday, took part in D-Day memorial celebrations in 20 years ago in 1984. He eulogized Reagan as a leader in the fight for freedom.
Members of an American landing unit help their exhausted comrades ashore during the Normandy invasion.
The French-American commemoration in Normandy is the first ceremony to take place in the D-Day 60th anniversary services. Countless veterans from both sides of the conflict -- the Allies on one side and Germany on the other -- gathered at the sun-soaked cemetery. Colleville is located at Omaha Beach, where more than 3,000 American soldiers fell on a single day of fighting on June 6. 1944. In Colleville alone, a total of 9,386 white crosses dot the lawn-covered cemetery, demarking the burial grounds of U.S. soldiers who died in battle here.
A first for Schröder
More than 24 world leaders are expected to join the main D-Day celebration Sunday afternoon at Arromanches, a city on the English Channel located roughly at the mid-point among the major code-named beaches where the day's biggest battles occurred.
Gerhard Schroeder (right) shares a close political relationship with France's Jacques Chirac.
Among them will be German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, marking the first time a German, the former enemy, has taken part in a D-Day memorial ceremony.
The chancellor plans to lay two wreathes at the military cemetery in the city of Ranville -- one for the Allies and one for the German soldiers who lost their lives. Soldiers from eight countries are buried at the cemetery, including 322 from Germany. At a Franco-German celebration later in the evening, Schröder and Chirac are both expected to give speeches.
Schröder's historic visit represents the high point of two-generations of reconciliation between Germany and the Allies.
Speaking to Germany's mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag newspaper, Schröder said: "The victory of the Allies was not a victory over Germany, but a victory for Germany."
Schröder said his invitation from Chirac to attend the commemorative ceremonies suggested the "postwar era is undeniably over." Only 10 years ago, the Allies refused to invite Schröder's predecessor, Helmut Kohl, a political leader who helped bring about the end of the Cold War, to the 50th anniversary memorial services. The focus of the ceremony has changed, too. "I think the focus has to be on joint-remembrance -- including joint remembrance of the dead," he told German public broadcaster ARD on Friday.
Venues stir controversy in Germany
Nonetheless, Schröder's choice of venues drew criticism from some quarters in Germany. Peter Ramsauer, a member of German parliament with the conservative Christian Social Union party, said the fact that Schröder did not plan to visit the military cemetery at La Cambe, where 21,000 German soldiers are buried, was a "insult" to the mens' widows.
La Cambe remains a sensitive issue in both Germany and France because it is also the site where 5,000 SS soldiers and high officers are buried. Many of them participated in one of the darkest chapters of the war in France: the unexplained decimation of hundreds of French men, women and children in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer sharply criticized the salvos from the opposition, describing them as "unspeakable attacks on the chancellor" that were intended to "invalidate the historic gesture of the French president and people" to invite the German leader. He added that Schröder would honor the German dead, but "not those who were guilty of the worst crimes," like those responsible for the grizzly Oradour-sur-Glane massacre.
Prince Charles attends opening ceremonies
The offical D-Day festivities began on Saturday, with 300 British soldiers parachuting near Ranville and Caen, where Brit paratroopers took part in a spectacular landing action on D-Day and subsequently seized a strategic bridge. Using both modern and historic warships, a number of British veterans on Saturday set sail from the city of Portsmouth toward Normandy.
Meanwhile, in a pomp-filled ceremony in Paris, French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie and Foreign Ministry chief Michel Barnier awarded Frances highest medal, the Order of the French Legion of Honor, to 105 D-Day veterans.
D-Day is remembered as one of the most important events in modern European history. It's known here as a milestone in the liberation of Europe during World War II from Nazi control. On the day, more than 155,000 Allied soldiers landed on five beaches in Frances, marking their entry into continental Europe. Eleven months later, Hitler and Nazi Germany capitulated.