PARIS – With armfuls of gifts, France on Friday welcomed back American veterans who helped free Europe from Nazi occupation when they landed on Normandy's beaches 60 years ago.
One hundred former World War II fighters saluted and waved as they climbed off a chartered Air France plane that brought them from Washington, D.C., to receive France's highest honor at D-Day (search) anniversary commemorations this weekend.
Several leaned on canes as they walked down a red carpet on the tarmac at Charles De Gaulle Airport outside Paris. Many wore military caps and medals on their chests, some toted video cameras and all placed hands over their hearts when a French military band played "The Star-Spangled Banner."
They sang along, too, to "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, whose words they had practiced on the flight.
"I'm really humbled by the whole thing," said Rocco Moretto, 79, of the New York City borough of Queens. "The buddies that we left behind were the real heroes. I often think of them."
French Veterans Minister Hamlaoui Mekachera (search) promised the Americans they'd find a warm, grateful welcome here.
"For the French people of 2004, just like for the French people of 1944 ... you are true heroes," he said.
"We are fully aware of what we owe you, we have not forgotten the immense sacrifices that you have made for the liberation of our country."
France is to bestow the Legion of Honor (search), its most prestigious civilian and military award, on the 100 veterans who were chosen by U.S. officials. France says it wants to honor them as representatives of all the Americans who fought against Nazism.
The 100 veterans are among thousands arriving in France for a weekend of ceremonies marking the 60 years since D-Day. Many are now in their 80s or older and this year's commemorations are likely to be the last major anniversary attended by large numbers of those who participated in the June 6, 1944 landings.
More than 20 national leaders are expected in Normandy to mark the occasion, including President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. It is the first time Russian and German leaders are attending a D-Day anniversary.
On Sunday, President Jacques Chirac (search) will bestow the coveted award on Charles Hostler during a Normandy ceremony that will draw the heads of state.
Hostler served with the OSS — Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA — in its effort to lead Nazi spies in France to feed false information about Allied plans back to their German commanders, said his wife, Chin-Yeh Hostler.
The honorees and their relatives traveled for free on a flight paid for by Air France and other French businesses. Some of the top hotels in Paris are putting them up without charge.
Joseph Kuhar, 87, of Washington, D.C., said French kindness had been overwhelming.
"If they keep giving me souvenirs, I'm going to have to hire a truck," he laughed. Many of the veterans carried shopping bags full of gifts, including bottles of champagne.
Howard Baugh, 84, of Midlothian, Virginia, who flew with the Tuskegee Airmen, said the Legion of Honor was particularly sweet for him since the all-black 332nd Fighter Group did not get widespread recognition for decades after the war.
"I was raised in the South, I was raised with segregation and discrimination," he said.
Unlike many of the veterans, Baugh was on his first visit to France. He was based in Italy and flew bombing missions over France to weaken German defenses before the D-Day landings.
Moretto saw the anniversary as a welcome chance to remember the ties that bind America and France together despite bad feelings between the allies over the Iraq war.
He said he was distressed by anti-French sentiment in the United States, noting that many Normandy civilians have carefully tended the graves of America's war dead.
"The French have always been good to us," he said. "And now we're going to toss that aside? I don't think that's right. It's not from the World War II veterans."