COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France – Standing among the dead and before the dwindling number of living World War II (search) veterans, President Bush on Sunday saluted U.S. soldiers who gave their lives on D-Day and proclaimed, "America would do it again for its friends."
He promised the white-haired veterans who 60 years ago stormed the beaches of Normandy, turning the tide of the war: "You will be honored ever and always by the country you served and the nations you freed."
The emotional morning was made even more solemn following the death Saturday of former President Ronald Reagan (search) -- a hero and ideological role model to the current White House occupant. French and American flags flew at half-staff in his memory.
Bush recalled Reagan's visit to Normandy 20 years ago.
"He was a courageous leader himself and a gallant leader in the cause of freedom, and today we honor the memory of Ronald Reagan," he said.
Bush later participated in other D-Day events in Normandy, then flew back to the United States, arriving in Georgia late Sunday night. He will host an eight-nation economic summit that begins on Tuesday. The president flew Air Force One to Hunter Air Base, near Savannah, then flew by helicopter to Sea Island, where there summit will be held.
Bush stood beside French President Jacques Chirac (search) at the Normandy American Cemetery above Omaha Beach. They joined in a wreath-laying at a memorial, which was followed by a 21-gun salute that spewed smoke into the blue sky, a somber rendition of taps and a flyover by four fighter jets.
U.S-French relations have been strained recently over Iraq but neither president mentioned that, even indirectly.
"America is our eternal ally, and that alliance and solidarity are all the stronger for having been forged in those terrible hours," Chirac said.
Bush said "our great alliance of freedom is strong, and it is still needed today."
Hollywood star Tom Hanks (search) and director Steven Spielberg (search), makers of the movie about the invasion, "Saving Private Ryan," sat discreetly in the audience amid aging veterans in military uniforms and wheelchairs.
The massive Allied operation west of Paris was the largest amphibious invasion in history, drawing together more than 130,000 troops, 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft. At the cemetery, 9,386 American servicemen are buried. Another 14,000 were interred there when the war ended, but later were exhumed and buried at home as their families wished.
Bush spoke of "men not far from boys who found the courage to charge toward death and who often, when death came, were heard to call, "Mom," and, "Mother, help me. We think of men in the promise years of life, loved and mourned and missed to this day."
To aging veterans interspersed in the audience, some of them in military uniforms and others in wheelchairs, Bush said, "America honors all the liberators who fought here in the noblest of causes, and America would do it again for our friends."
Among the veterans was Alexander Milijevic, 79, who came ashore on Omaha Beach with the 4th Infantry Division (search). He made it into France but was captured two weeks later.
Milijevic, of Havre de Grace, Md., said in a shaky voice that he was "overwhelmed" by the experience.
"It's a lovely place here, with so many memories," he said.
Leaders from more than 15 countries gathered at this year's Normandy commemoration, which included for the first time heads of state from Germany and Russia. Chirac invited both Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search).
Bush's visit to France drew some of the heaviest security Paris has seen in years. Thousands of people in the French capital demonstrated to protest his visit, the war in Iraq and Bush's Mideast policies. Many protesters carried posters reading "Bush Terrorist No. 1," and some marching through the city's center set posters on fire. There were no reports of violence.
Asked about anti-American feeling in Europe, Bush told NBC, "I remember my predecessor, whose life we mourn, Ronald Reagan, they felt the same way about him."
"What I'm trying to do is what I think is right," said Bush. And what is right is to fight terror."
Dense fog delayed the start of the day's events by forcing Air Force One to circle the skies and make two aborted landings before touching down. The ceremonies took place under a cloudless sky after dense fog burned off.
Bush and Chirac joined 15 other heads of state, a group that included Queen Elizabeth II of England, Putin -- and Schroeder -- for lunch in the Normandy town of Caen.
They dined in the city hall, a 12th century building originally built by William the Conqueror and the only major structure in the town that escaped allied bombing.
The main D-Day ceremony was held in the nearby town of Arromanches.
After the ceremonies, Bush, Chirac, Schroeder, Putin, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin were flying to Sea Island, Ga., for the economic summit. They are to be joined by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.