COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Gone are the screaming shells, seasick soldiers and bloody waters of 1944 during World War II. On Friday, a sun-filled Normandy celebrated peace, with silent salutes, tears and international friendship. It was now 70 years since the D-Day invasion helped change the course of World War II and modern history.
Not many of the 150,000 Allied soldiers who slogged onto storm-torn beaches or parachuted into the French region of Normandy remain alive to pass on memories of that "longest day."
Some survivors of the battle stood, somber-faced and proud, alongside President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande and other world leaders. Together they paid tribute Friday to history's biggest amphibious invasion.
The veterans' hands, which once wrestled France from Nazi occupation, saluted wizened faces. Some of the men rose to their feet with difficulty. As they did, thousands of onlookers applauded.
"Endure For Eternity"
"Thank you for having been here in the summer of '44. Thank you for still being here on June 6, 2014," Hollande told veterans on Sword Beach, one of five code-named beaches taken by the Allies 70 years ago. France's gratitude, he said, "will never be extinguished."
Earlier, he paid special tribute to U.S. soldiers buried at the Normandy American Cemetery. "Vive l'Amerique! Vive la France! And long live the memory of those who fell here for our liberty."
Taking the stand on Omaha Beach, Obama called the site "democracy's beachhead."
"Our commitment to liberty, to equality, to freedom," to the "dignity of every human being," he said, "is written in blood on these beaches." It "will endure for eternity."
In all, 19 world leaders, more than 1,000 veterans and many others gathered to honor the troops and civilians who fell in the mighty battles of the Normandy invasion. Their sacrifice helped bring Europe peace and unity.
At 6:30 a.m., the moment on June 6, 1944, when Allied troops first waded ashore, a U.S. military band played taps. D-Day veterans from the 29th Infantry Division and serving soldiers stood at attention.
"Twenty-nine, let's go!" they shouted, then downed shots of Calvados, Normandy's apple brandy.
Hundreds of Normandy residents and other onlookers applauded, then formed a human chain on the beach.
A glorious sun rose as they arrived and shone throughout the day.
Flags Placed On Every Grave
Seventy years earlier, that same beach had looked very different: As battle raged, paratroopers' corpses hung from trees and medics dragged wounded soldiers from blood-swirled waves.
The secretly planned Operation Overlord included landings on five Normandy beaches. They were code-named Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword and Utah.
The D-Day invasion was a turning point in World War II, cracking Hitler's western front as Soviet troops made advances in the east. At least 4,400 Allied troops were killed the first day. Many thousands more died in the ensuing three-month Battle of Normandy, before the Allies could march to Paris to liberate the French capital from Nazi occupation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a few German veterans also took part in Friday's ceremony, as a gesture of the European unity that the Allied victory brought. Ceremonies large and small were taking place across Normandy and around the world.
A ceremony with Prince Charles at the Cathedral of Bayeux, just south of the beaches, left British veteran Richard England deeply shaken.
"It brought it all back, I'm afraid — all the boys I lost, my brother-in-law who was killed almost at the end, and the lovely chaps that fought with me who were older than me and are no longer with us," said England, of the 8th Durham Infantry Battalion. "They weren't here, unfortunately."
Several thousand veterans, family members and others gathered at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. With its 9,387 white marble tombstones on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the cemetery is a special place for Americans. It is the emotional centerpiece for those who come to honor U.S. troops killed in Normandy.
For the ceremony, small U.S. and French flags were placed in the ground at each grave.
Tribute To Slain Civilians
In addition to the fallen troops, Allied bombardments killed an estimated 20,000 French civilians. Hollande paid tribute to them Friday in Caen, which like many cities of Normandy was largely destroyed in the bombings.
France has only tentatively come to grips with the invasion's toll on civilians. Historians now believe that nearly as many French civilians died in Allied air raids as Britons during the German Blitz.
Jeffrey McIllwain, a professor at San Diego State University, brought 12 students to Normandy for a course on the lessons of D-Day. McIllwain hopes to keep the memory of D-Day alive as the number of survivors dwindles.
"I make them promise to bring their grandchildren," he said, "to serve as a bridge to the next generation."
Echoing that message, children accompanied world leaders during the main international ceremony Friday. Together they walked down a red carpet to take their seats in the enormous viewing stands.
Veteran Jack Schlegel, 91, of Albany, New York, came to Normandy for the 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries of D-Day. He said he's honored to be here for the 70th.
"The president of the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) told me he wants to see me at the 75th but I don't know," said Schlegel, who was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. "My head's still here but I'm not sure about my body."