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World leaders gather to celebrate the 80th anniversary of D-Day – NBC Chicago

As the sun set on the D-Day generation, it rose again over the beaches of Normandy, where soldiers fought and died exactly 80 years ago Thursday, kicking off intense anniversary commemorations against the backdrop of renewed war in Europe, in Ukraine.

The dwindling number of World War II veterans returning to France, and Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, which dashed hopes that lives and cities in Europe would not be destroyed again, make the ever-poignant anniversaries of June 6, 1944 , the Allied landings even more so 80 years later.

As now-centenarian veterans relive old memories and fallen comrades buried in the graves of Normandy, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s presence at D-Day commemorations will join world leaders – including US President Joe Biden who supported Ukraine’s fight against Russian invasion backs – inevitably merging World War II. II’s terrible past meets Thursday’s fraught present.

Daybreak, almost eighty years to the day after Allied forces waded ashore under hail of gunfire on five code-named beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – will mark the start of a day of remembrance for the Allied countries who now stand together behind Ukraine again. – and with World War II ally Russia, who was not invited by host France. It cited Russia’s “war of aggression against Ukraine, which has intensified in recent weeks” as criticism.

With the number of dead and wounded on both sides in Ukraine estimated at hundreds of thousands, commemorations for the more than 4,400 Allied deaths on D-Day and many tens of thousands more, including French civilians, killed in the ensuing Battle of Normandy, are tinged with concern that lessons from the Second World War are being lost.

“There are things worth fighting for,” said World War II veteran Walter Stitt, who fought in tanks and will turn 100 in July when he visited Omaha Beach this week. “Although I wish there was another way to do it other than trying to kill each other.”

“We’ll learn one of these days, but I won’t be there,” he said.

Aware of the inevitability that major D-Day anniversaries will soon take place without World War II veterans, huge crowds of enthusiasts in period uniforms and riding vehicles, and tourists enjoying the spectacle, have flooded Normandy for the 80th anniversary anniversary.

“It’s so historic and we just have to remember the sacrifices of everyone who gave us our freedom,” said Becky Kraubetz, a Briton now living in Florida whose grandfather served in the British Army during World War II and was captured in Malta .

“It gives you goosebumps, everything that happened here. Imagine just jumping into the water, freezing,” the 54-year-old said as she stared across the English Channel with tears in her eyes. “The courage, the bravery of people to face that is just incredible – very, very humbling to be here.”

She was among a crowd of thousands of people that stretched for several miles along Utah Beach, the westernmost of the D-Day beaches.

In a quiet spot, far from official ceremonies, France’s Christophe Receveur paid his own tribute by unfurling an American flag he bought during a trip to Pennsylvania to honor those who died on D-Day.

“If you forget them, you let them die again,” the 57-year-old said as he and his daughter Julie carefully folded the flag back into a tight triangle, adding that those now dying in Ukraine fighting the invading Russian army were also on his mind.

“All these troops came to liberate a country that they did not know had an ideology – democracy, freedom – that is now under severe pressure,” he said.

The fairytale atmosphere, fueled by World War II jeeps and trucks tearing down hedgerow lanes so deadly for Allied troops fighting entrenched German defenders, and of reenactors playing war on the sands where D-Day soldiers fell, leave Open the question of what meaning birthdays will have when the veterans are no longer there.

But on the 80th they are the VIPs of commemorations along the coast of Normandy, where the largest land, sea and air armada ever breached Hitler’s defenses in Western Europe and helped hasten his downfall 11 months later.

“They really were the golden generation, those 17-, 18-year-old boys who did something so courageous,” said James Baker, a 56-year-old from the Netherlands, as he reflected as dawn broke on Utah Beach.

Further up the coast at Gold Beach, a military bagpiper played at the exact moment British troops landed there 80 years ago.

Britain’s King Charles III and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will take part in a ceremony later in the day to honor them and the British troops who also landed on Sword Beach, while Prince William will take part in a ceremony for the Canadian troops who landed on Juno Beach have landed. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will also be part of this.

Those who traveled to Normandy include women who were among the millions who built bombers, tanks and other weaponry and played other crucial roles in World War II that have long been overshadowed by the combat exploits of men.

“We didn’t do it for honors and prizes. We did it to save our country. And in the end, we helped save the world,” said 98-year-old Anna Mae Krier, who worked as a riveter building B-17 and B-29 bombers.

Wherever they go in wheelchairs and walking with canes, veterans use their voices to repeat the message they hope will live forever: never forget.

“To know how many people died here, just astonishing,” said 98-year-old Allan Chatwin, who served in the US Navy in the Pacific, as he visited Omaha, the deadliest of the Allied beaches, on D-Day. .

He quickly added, “I don’t know that great is the word.”

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