6 June 2004 -- U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac put aside their differences over the Iraq war as world leaders honored the memory of thousands of Allied troops who were killed 60 years ago during the D-Day landings on France's northern coast in Normandy.
Both Chirac and Bush spoke to thousands of U.S. veterans of World War II who gathered amid rows of graves at a U.S. military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. The cemetery is near the infamous Omaha Beach, where American soldiers landed on D-Day, taking heavy casualties.
President Chirac thanked the Allied forces for their sacrifices in the landings that had forced back German troops and helped liberate Europe from Nazi occupation: "And to the entire American nation, sharing this solemn moment with us, to all those men and women who paid the ultimate price of those heroic days, the message of France is indeed a message of friendship and brotherhood, a message of thanks, of appreciation and gratitude."
Chirac also insisted that America is an "eternal ally" of France and that the friendship built up between the two countries "remains intact." He also spoke of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 as another date that is "burned forever" into the French memory.
"This friendship remains intact to this day," he said. "It is confident, it is indeed demanding. But it is founded in mutual respect. America is our eternal ally and that alliance and solidarity are all the stronger for having been forged in those terrible hours. And in America's time of trial, when barbarity wreaks death, havoc, and destruction in America and elsewhere in the world. As in the tragedy of September 11th 2001, a date burned forever into our memories and hearts, France stands side by side every man and woman in America. Their grief is our grief. In conferring the Cross of Chevalier in the Order of the Legion of Honor this morning on 100 American veterans here today, I have wanted the name of every French man and woman to bear witness once again, once more, to this ancient friendship, and to our gratitude."
Bush stressed the need for the United States and European countries to maintain what he called "our great alliance of freedom."
"Across Europe, Americans shared the battle with Britons, Canadians, Poles, free French, and brave citizens from other lands taken back, one by one, from Nazi rule," Bush said. "In the trials and total sacrifice of the war, we became inseparable allies. The nations that liberated a conquered Europe would stand together for the freedom of all of Europe. 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."
The pledges of friendship by the U.S. and French presidents followed talks in Paris yesterday in which both leaders chose to highlight the strengths in ties rather than their differences. Events this weekend are seen as an attempt to rebuild relations that have been strained by the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which France opposed.
Bush said today that modern political leaders have a duty to honor what the Allied soldiers of World War II died for by standing together in the cause of freedom and democracy: "It is a strange turn of history that called on young men from the prairie towns and city streets of America to cross an ocean and throw back the marching, mechanized evils of fascism. And those young men did it. America honors all of the liberators who fought here in the noblest of causes. And America would do it again for our friends."
The term "D-Day" is U.S. military jargon that literally means "the day of attack" under an offensive combat plan. Outside of the U.S. military, it has come to be widely associated with the Allied landings on the coast of Normandy during what was officially known as "Operation Overlord."
Omaha Beach, where presidents Bush and Chirac spoke today, is one of five beaches where Allied troops had landed and where remembrance ceremonies were conducted today.
Overnight, British veterans of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry staged a march across what had been one of their initial battle objectives -- the strategically vital Pegasus Bridge. Crowds of British and French turned out for a parade across that bridge: Meanwhile, a massive series of firework displays organized by French authorities illuminated the invasion coastline, highlighting all of the beaches that were stormed during the campaign.
As another part of the many commemorative ceremonies taking place this weekend, a replica of one of the giant gliders used in the raid on Pegasus Bridge was unveiled by Prince Charles of Wales.
Some 30,000 soldiers have deployed around the Normandy beaches as security this weekend. Helicopters patrolled overhead and fighter planes were on standby with orders to shoot down any aircraft violating a no-fly zone around the events if requested to do so by Paris.
Other leaders at today's ceremonies included German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the first German leader to attend D-Day events in France, and President Vladimir Putin, the first Russian head of state to attend.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard also attended along with the leaders of Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and New Zealand.