ASNELLES-SUR-MER, France – D-Day
Hundreds of relatives and others joined at least two dozen veterans to remember the June 6, 1944, invasion on Normandy's beaches that helped free France — and much of Europe — from Nazi Germany's grip.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge laid a wreath along with the U.S. ambassador to France at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, where thousands of crosses and Stars of David mark soldiers' graves on a finely groomed lawn.
At Utah Beach, where thousands of Americans stormed ashore, about 150 people gathered for a ceremony to honor veterans from the 101st Airborne Division under blue skies.
"The weather wasn't like this 62 years ago," recalled Bill Thornan, 86, who landed on a nearby beach on D-Day and was among more than a dozen American veterans at the ceremony in Saint-Marie du Mont.
Others remembered how the airborne drop by the 101st went awry for some American parachutists: They landed behind German lines, but outside the planned drop zones.
"I remember insulting the pilot of our plane because he didn't drop us in the right area," recalled Jack Dickson, 83.
He also said the anniversary is an important time to reflect. "I hope I'll be here next year to send this message to future generations: Never forget the horror of war — and never forget that men died on these Normandy beaches to free the world."
U.S. reservists — including some who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — took part in commemorative parachute jumps Sunday and Monday ahead of the anniversary.
"It's a very special day in history, when the United States, with the British and the Canadians, outfoxed the Nazis," U.S. Ambassador Craig Stapleton told The Associated Press. "Any American who has come to the beaches of Normandy, or any of our cemeteries in Europe, goes back with a different perspective on what Americans have done in Europe."
A new, $25 million visitors' center is to open on D-Day next year at the Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery to detail events surrounding the D-Day invasion, Stapleton said. He said about 1.4 million people visit the U.S. cemetery every year.
About 1,000 people attended an official D-Day ceremony Tuesday in Asnelles-sur-Mer, part of Gold Beach, where British soldiers came ashore. The site of the official anniversary alternates between the U.S. and British landing zones every year, Stapleton said.
French Veterans Minister Hamlaoui Mekachera called the invasion, which bore the codename Operation Overlord, one of the greatest events in history.
Speaking at the ceremony, he praised the "brothers-in-arms" from eight countries — the United States, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Poland, the Netherlands and Norway — who died "to defend the cause of freedom."
In the early morning, a few veterans from Britain's 231st Infantry Brigade went to Gold Beach to remember lost friends and talk to villagers and schoolchildren about their experiences.
"It's very moving to be here," said 87-year-old Ken Ewing. "To see this beach where many friends lost their lives gives me the chills and makes me think we should never forget; we must never forget."
A dozen schoolchildren read poems they wrote for the occasion. Children asked such questions as "Were you afraid?"
"I am very moved to be with them," said Laura Guyon, 11. "These older gentleman were crying when they were on the beach."
Smaller ceremonies were held along the Normandy coast. The town of Carentan commemorated D-Day with a reconstructed military camp — complete with tents and vintage French and U.S. army vehicles.