COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France – Amidst endless rows of white gravestones at the American Cemetery in Normandy, President Bush spent Memorial Day honoring the U.S. soldiers who fought to free Europe during World War II — and those fighting terrorism in Afghanistan today.
Vowing never to forget those who died "for the future of humanity," Bush observed the American day of remembrance in another country — a rare occurrence for a U.S. president.
"For some military families in America and in Europe, the grief is recent," the president said at a rainy ceremony honoring those who died in the 1944 D-Day liberation of France. "They can know, however, that the cause is just. And like other generations, these sacrifices have spared many others from tyranny and sorrow."
The same is true of the U.S.-led war that toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, Bush said.
"Our wars have won for us every hour we live in freedom. Our wars have taken from us the men and women we honor today, and every hour of the lifetimes they had hoped to live."
Among those in the audience of several thousand was a moist-eyed Ted Liska, 84, of Chicago, dressed in his World War II uniform. An Army sergeant who lost four buddies in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, Liska said he's been coming back to the site nearly every year since.
"I told them I'd never forget them. That's what I come back for every year," he said.
Roiling clouds and intermittent showers contributed to the somber mood of the ceremony. Bush strode alone among painfully neat rows of thousands of bone-white crosses or Stars of David, each decorated with two flags, one American, one French.
The cemetery overlooks Normandy’s Omaha Beach, where U.S. troops launched the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion. Some of the heaviest U.S. casualties occurred during that battle — 9,387 soldiers' lives were lost — as allied forces broke through Hitler's fortifications to turn the tide of World War II.
"Each person buried here understood his duty, but also dreamed of going back home to the people and things he knew," said Bush, who was born two years after the D-Day battle.
"The day will come when no one is left who knew them. ... The day will never come when America forgets them.
"Our nation, and the world, will always remember what they did here, what they gave here, for the future of humanity," he said.
Fifty-eight years ago, the fight to liberate Europe from the Nazis formed a bond between America and France, which then spread throughout Europe, "turning enemies to friends, and the pursuits of war to the pursuits of peace," Bush said.
That bond is renewed today, the president said, as European nations join with the United States in the struggle to rid the world of terrorism.
"Our security is still bound up together in a trans-Atlantic alliance, with soldiers in many uniforms defending the world from terrorists at this very hour," Bush said.
After his speech, Bush and French President Jacques Chirac laid two wreaths, floral arrangements of the U.S. and French flags, at a memorial for the fallen soldiers. After a moment of silence, the national anthems of both countries were played, followed by a 21-gun salute, a military fly-over and a mournful rendition of "Taps" by a lone bugler.
Bush paid tribute at the cemetery after attending a service at the Church of Notre Dame de la Paix in nearby Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French town liberated by Americans. He was greeted by local dignitaries and joined Chirac at the service.
Several hundred people lined the streets of the town. Exuberant children chanted "Chirac and George Bush" as they waved U.S. and French flags. U.S. Army Chaplain Kevin Leideritz, a World War II veteran, led the service in prayer and called the town "a community with such history and deep emotion."
The last visit to Normandy by a U.S. president was in 1994, when President Clinton went there to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise is just a few miles from Utah Beach, one of five beaches where American, British and Canadian troops landed by the tens of thousands on D-Day. Bush planned to visit the town's church, a World War II landmark, later in the day.
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, American paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions landed in the town square amid a crowd gathered to fight a local house fire.
One of the paratroopers, Private John Steele, dangled for hours from the steeple of the church when his parachute snagged. He managed to survive despite heavy gunfire from both sides. He died only a few years ago.
Bush was to get an aerial tour of Pointe de Hoc, Utah Beach and Omaha Beach from Brig. Gen. William J. Leszcynski Jr.
Normandy American Cemetery, site of the day's major address, stands above Omaha Beach on land given to the United States by France.
Among the dead are 307 unknowns, three Medal of Honor recipients and four women. Graves are marked by Latin crosses or Stars of David.
During Sunday's joint news conference in Paris, Chirac saluted Bush for spending the American Memorial Day holiday in Normandy paying "solemn tribute to the great number of young American servicemen who gave up their lives to fight for France, for Europe, for freedom."
"This fight for freedom, for liberty, is a constant fight, a fight that we all engage in; a fight that is a bond between the peoples of both sides of the Atlantic," Chirac said.
He added that it was also "a fight that is pursued still today ... the fight against terrorism."
The visit came as Bush proceeded with his weeklong tour of Europe. Late Monday, he was to fly to Rome, where he would participate in a NATO-Russia meeting on Tuesday and visit Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. At the start of his trip, he visited Germany and Russia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.