Bush, World Leaders Honor D-Day Veterans

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Near the five beaches where waves of Allied soldiers stormed ashore 60 years ago, world leaders put aside their differences Sunday to commemorate the D-Day invasion that broke Nazi Germany's grip on continental Europe.

President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac used the opportunity to reinvigorate the flagging U.S.-European bond cemented during World War II. Chirac, a leading critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thanked America for its part in the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, one of the boldest military operations ever and one that led to the defeat of Adolf Hitler.

"France will never forget," Chirac said. "It will never forget those men who made the supreme sacrifice to liberate our soil, our native land, our continent, from the yoke of Nazi barbarity and its murderous folly.

"Nor will it ever forget its debt to America, its everlasting friend."

Earlier, Chirac welcomed Bush at the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, where 9,387 fallen U.S. service members are buried. There, Bush tried to ease the strain in the trans-Atlantic alliance.

"The nations that battled across the continent would become trusted partners in the cause of peace. And our great alliance of freedom is strong, and it is still needed today," Bush said. "America would do it again for our friends."

Under gloriously sunny skies, Chirac pinned Legion of Honor medals on veterans from 14 nations in a pomp-filled ceremony at Arromanches, near the midpoint of the five code-named beaches where about 156,000 Allied soldiers stormed in from the English Channel.

As Allied flags fluttered in the wind, Chirac, Bush and leaders of more than a dozen countries and hundreds of dignitaries gave a standing ovation to the veterans, ranging in age from 79 to 94.

"To you, on behalf of all French men and women, on behalf of all the heads of state and government gathered here today and of all freedom-loving people, I express our gratitude, our pride and our admiration," Chirac said in a passionate speech to the former combatants.

The 14 recipients included Charles Hostler, 84, of Coronado, Calif., a team leader for the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA. Hostler's mission was to force German spies along the French coast to send their spymasters false reports on Allied troops.

All told, about 300 veterans from more than a dozen countries - mostly the United States, Britain and Canada - were to receive the Legion of Honor in ceremonies over the weekend.

The world leaders attending the festivities included Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder - the first German leader to attend a D-Day commemoration in Normandy. Britain's Queen Elizabeth II also attended.

Schroeder's participation symbolized Germany's transformation from mortal enemy to trusted partner.

"France's memory of June 6, 1944, is different than that of Germany," Schroeder said. "Nevertheless we share the same common conviction: We want peace."

The waves on Normandy shores ran red with blood on D-Day as Allied soldiers scurried across heavily mined and obstacle-covered beaches. Other flew into the back country in gliders or dropped in by parachute, with some getting snagged in trees or buildings.

There is no definitive D-Day death toll, but estimates range from 2,500 to more than 5,000. Bodies still are unearthed along the Normandy coast.

Soviet generals and many military historians argue that D-Day was of secondary importance in World War II because the German military machine had already been broken beyond recovery in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk.

In the Soviet Union and Russia, D-Day is widely known as the opening of a "second front."

In Colleville-sur-Mer, French and American flags flew at half-staff in memory of former President Reagan, who died Saturday at age 93 following a 10-year battle with Alzheimer's disease.

Actor Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg, whose movie "Saving Private Ryan" depicted the invasion, sat discreetly in the audience, surrounded by aging veterans in military uniforms and wheelchairs.

Queen Elizabeth began the commemorations at Juno Beach by thanking Canadian soldiers, who were assigned to capture it during the invasion.

"Britain had been directly threatened by the enemy, but you came across the Atlantic from the relative security of your homeland to fight for the freedom of Europe," Elizabeth said.

Several thousand people, including hundreds of British veterans, crowded between rows of white gravestones during a British-French memorial service at a British cemetery in Bayeux.

"On behalf of my generation, the younger one, I thank you," Blair told Australian veteran Gordon Church, 96, who landed on Gold Beach.

The queen and Chirac laid a wreath of red poppies at one grave as Australian Prime Minister John Howard and New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark looked on.

At dawn Sunday, veterans proudly supporting their medals came to Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the landing sites, to remember friends killed.

More than 500 people attended a ceremony in front of the Caen prison to honor the 87 French Resistance fighters shot to death there by the Gestapo on D-Day.

"It's very moving to be here," said 76-year-old Robert Duval, whose father was executed. "I come every year, but I would prefer a memorial to honor the dead. That way we wouldn't have to come here to the site of the massacre."

With more than 20 world leaders arriving in Normandy at a time of high terror threat, France deployed fighter jets, surface-to-air missiles and 15,000 gendarmes and soldiers for security. Access to the region was sharply restricted by police after daybreak.