COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France – Above a cliff of silent reminders, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday evoked the image of fallen warriors to mark the 63rd anniversary of the Normandy D-Day landings that turned the tide of World War II.
The bloody beach assault on June 6, 1944, "unfolded as if it were a lifetime" for the young men who braved German guns, Gates said, looking out upon a vast field of white grave markers on a rainy, chilly day.
Gates and the new French defense minister attended the anniversary ceremony and dedication Wednesday of a visitor's center at the Normandy American Cemetery, the burial ground for 9,387 war dead, most of whom lost their lives in the amphibious assault and subsequent operations.
In remarks at the midday ceremony, Gates said U.S. and allied soldiers landed at Normandy to destroy entrenched forces of oppression "so that this nation, this continent and this world could one day know the tidings of peace."
He tied the memory of Normandy to the challenge of today's war on terrorism.
"We once again face enemies seeking to destroy our way of life, and we are once again engaged in an ideological struggle that may not find resolution for many years or even decades," he said.
Speaking before Gates was American Walter Ehlers, a Medal of Honor recipient who landed at Omaha Beach as a young U.S. Army staff sergeant — an experience he recalled in vivid detail.
"We weren't prepared for the chaos and all the disasters," he said.
Gates was accompanied by French Defense Minister Herve Morin. When Gates arrived in Paris on Tuesday evening, he became the first U.S. defense secretary to visit the French capital in nearly 10 years.
Gates highlighted the traditional bonds between France and the United States — ties that have been badly strained recently by the war in Iraq and other differences between Paris and Washington.
"Minister Morin, events like this also remind us of all we have endured together — remind us of our long history in times of war and in times of peace — remind us of the shared values that transcend what differences we may have had in the past, or may have in the present," Gates said.
In his own remarks, Morin said D-Day has lasting importance for his country.
"For the French it was the beginning of the advance of freedom," he said.
In his Normandy speech, Gates painted a painful sketch of the D-Day misery and death, noting that it was preceded on June 5 by the movement of an enormous mass of men and ships that sailed across the English Channel.
"For those who were here, the next day, June 6, unfolded as if it were a lifetime," he said. "Men who had only recently felt the warmth of their families now felt the frigid waters of the English Channel and the lonely sands of a war-torn, wind-swept beachhead.
"Men who had just a few months earlier been boys in the midst of adolescence suddenly found themselves traversing a warren of lethal obstacles on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword."
After the ceremony Gates visited Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers scaled sheer cliffs on D-Day, taking heavy casualties, to overrun German gun emplacements that were deemed a threat to the Omaha Beach landing.
French and American veterans and active troops took part in the American cemetery ceremony. Later, veterans from all countries that took part in the D-Day invasion were to join a ceremony at the Signal Monument outside the neighboring town of Sainte-Marie-Eglise.
Commemorations took place in towns along the Normandy coast during the week leading up to Wednesday's anniversary.
On Saturday afternoon, American parachutists landed in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The town was the first liberated by U.S. forces on D-Day, after paratroopers landed overnight ahead of the main invasion force.
Vintage American and British military vehicles ferried uniform-wearing enthusiasts along the coast to and from a camp set up complete with tanks, jeeps, and women dressed as nurses.
A group of U.S. troops stationed in Germany arrived together in uniform at the American cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mer on Sunday. Mingling with tourists, the soldiers paid their respects to the D-Day fallen.