Obama pays tribute to D-Day soldiers

The New York TimesJune 7, 2009 

— President Barack Obama led a solemn tribute Saturday to the Allied soldiers who stormed the beaches here 65 years ago and achieved the triumph of a generation that charted a course for the end of World War II.

"As we face down the hardships and struggles of our time and arrive at that hour for which we were born," Obama said, "we cannot help but draw strength from those moments in history when the best among us were somehow able to swallow their fears and secure a beachhead on an unforgiving shore."

With a new era of threats gathering, Obama and the leaders of France, Britain and Canada paused to reflect upon the heroics that took place during the D-Day operations on the Normandy beaches and the cliffs of nearby Pointe du Hoc. The spirit of those battles, the presidents and prime ministers said, holds lessons for confronting new challenges in the world.

The afternoon ceremony came on the fourth day of Obama's trip through the Middle East and Europe, where the diplomatic goals of his administration came into sharper focus.

"We live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true. It is a world of varied religions and cultures and forms of government," he said. "In such a world, it is rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity. The Second World War did that."

Obama delivered a 16-minute address steeped in history, following President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain.

Without war stories of his own to offer, Obama, who was born 17 years after D-Day, introduced his great uncle, Charles Payne, a World War II veteran who traveled from Chicago.

He told of Zane Schlemmer of Kane'ohe, Hawaii, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, who parachuted into a dark marsh and was separated from his men, but helped liberate Carentan, the town in which he landed.

He also told the story of Jim Norene, a member of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, who traveled from Heppner, Ore., for the 65th anniversary. He was ill but came anyway, Obama said, and Norene died in his sleep Friday evening after visiting Omaha Beach one last time.

'A lot fewer of us'

In brilliant sunshine that gave way to imposing clouds and a cool breeze, waves crashed against the beaches where 156,000 Allied troops, almost half of them American, came ashore beginning June 6, 1944. Above the beaches, now best known by their D-Day code names -- Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold and Sword -- thousands of people made a pilgrimage to Colleville-sur-Mer.

The age distribution of the crowd was striking, with far fewer World War II veterans on hand than children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the men who fought here.

"There are a lot fewer of us. Our generation is sort of slipping away," former Sen. Bob Dole said amid autograph seekers and well-wishers. "But it's great to see people waving at you as you're driving down the highway and roads. It shows that the French understand what America did for them and a lot of other people."

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