LA CAMBE, France – Americans and Germans who were bitter enemies during the D-Day invasion of France shared stories and moments of silence at a Normandy ceremony, joining together to honor those who perished in the epochal World War II beach landings.
They held their poignant, low-key ceremony at the German cemetery Friday at La Cambe a day before an international commemoration nearby, led by President Barack Obama, to mark 65 years since Allied forces landed on Normandy's shores.
Military bands played anthems of the United States, Germany, Britain and France, and visitors piled wreaths at the foot of a mound at the center of the cemetery. Some 22,000 German soldiers are buried beneath clusters of rounded brown crosses in a grassy meadow not far from Omaha Beach.
Flags from nations who fought each other in World War II flew in the spring breeze.
Generations have passed, but remnants of the war continue to surface.
After the ceremony, most visitors headed out, but a few dozen stayed on in a corner of the cemetery, where a German pastor and a few soldiers buried the remains of a German soldier discovered last year. A Frenchman conducting construction work at the German battery at Grandcamp Maisy, 5 miles away, came across first a gun and then the remains, which have yet to be identified.
"It's a great feeling ... to come here," said Austin Cox of Crisfield, Maryland, a sergeant with the 29th Division of the U.S. 115th Infantry Regiment who landed on Omaha Beach at 9 a.m. on the epic day that turned the tide of World War II.
"My comrades, though, are buried over at Omaha," said Cox, 90, recalling the high tide that carried him onto the expanse of beach.
The main American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer has about 9,300 graves. Most U.S. war dead were repatriated.
Karl-Heinz Mayer of Oldenburg, Germany, has comrades at La Cambe, where a low, granite entrance leads into the cemetery containing the graves of the German soldiers, each marked with a small, flat stone. Unidentified bodies are marked simply, "ein Deutscher soldat," a German soldier.
At Friday's ceremony, Mayer recalled lying wounded on the fields of Normandy 65 years ago. An American soldier roused him with his boot, Mayer said. He said he was eventually sent to the United States to be treated for his wounds.
"Today I am here for the last time, because I'm 83 and I'm not that well," he said. "We shake hands, we are all normal people. And I hope there will never be a war again because this slaughter was horrible."
American vet Bill Ryan, of the 16th Infantry Regiment, also at Friday's ceremony, told Associated Press Television News some of his war experiences resembled that of his namesake in Steven Spielberg's film "Saving Private Ryan." Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks were expected to join some U.S. veterans on a special train from Paris to Normandy on Saturday morning.
The big event is Saturday, when Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Canadian and British prime ministers and Prince Charles gather for a ceremony amid the rows of white crosses and Stars of David at the American cemetery, which is U.S. territory.
As the quiet commemoration unfolded in Normandy, honors were bestowed on 45 American, Canadian and British veterans in an elaborate ceremony in Paris that Hanks attended.
"France is paying tribute to those who re-established our liberty ... ," said Defense Minister Herve Morin at the gold-domed Hotel des Invalides, where Napoleon's tomb is housed. "France remembers who they were and what France owes them," he said.
The 45 were given the coveted Legion of Honor award. Most of those present were Americans, many of whom had taken part in the storming of the beaches of Normandy.
Most struggled to their feet and saluted or placed hand on heart as a brass military band played the American, Canadian, British and French national anthems.
Commemoration events, from re-enactments to school concerts, were being held in seaside towns and along the five landing beaches that stretch across 50 miles (80 kilometers) of Normandy coastline.
Some 215,000 Allied soldiers, and roughly as many Germans, were killed or wounded during D-Day and the ensuing nearly three months it took to secure the Allied capture of Normandy.
Early Friday, some 130 British paratroopers from the 3rd Parachute Battalion swooped down on Ranville, where paratroopers from the 6th Airborne Division landed in darkness in the early hours of June 6, 1944, helping secure a key point on the Allies eastern flank. Friday's landing, under sunny morning skies, ended peacefully in wheat fields.
Later Friday, a fireworks display was planned up and down the shore where Allied troops launched the Battle of Normandy.