NORMANDY - A strange trio walked slowly into the huge American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy. Elderly Ed Concannon, dozens of medals adorning his chest, held the hand of his colleague, Lester Lease, who had difficulty walking.
Sixty years ago Concannon, an American marine, led Lease to the landing on Omaha Beach, which suffered the day's most casualties. Today they are here again to mark the 60th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy.
The cemetery has 9,387 graves, including 149 with a Star of David on them.
Beside them walks the French Hippolyte Vauclaire, wearing a tag saying "thank you, dear liberators" and carrying a bunch of flowers. "I was a war child," he says. "These people liberated me from the occupation, and I don't forget it for a moment."
Today, like then, they still don't speak each other's language, but the bond among them is strong. Suddenly Vauclaire pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket, on which he printed a few words that were translated at his request. "The occupier meant to kill you, but instead he immortalized you," the message said.
The days preceding the official ceremonies commencing today belong to the war veterans. Separately, each looks like a kindly grandfather. Together they perpetuate the great ethos of that war. This human bond is devoid of politics and the controversies between the states and their leaders, it has only people who made history. The residue of this history is still noticeable on the beaches - German bunkers, fortifications and the fake port the British built in Arromanche, where the summit meeting of world leaders is held this week.
On the shores of Arromanche, to the strains of a British military band, David O'Keefe walks restlessly. A tag "Devonshire and Dorset Regiment" is attached to his lapel. "This is my second time here," he says. "The first was on Monday, June 7, 1944." O'Keefe, 78, says he had to lie about his age to enlist in the army and join the war "because it was the right thing to do."
Asked why he did not return for 60 years, he is sobered by the question. "Because of the bad memories," he says. "At war, even when you come to liberate, you don't exactly knock politely on the door. I hurt civilians. Now I'm old, and it's time to come back and pay respects to these people."
The pastoral paths among the villages and towns along Normandy's beaches once again look like occupied territory this week. Or rather, like the location where a war comedy is being filmed. American soldiers sip Calvados, vendors sell videocassettes of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." Among the military vehicles preparing for the festivities were dozens of 60-year old command cars, jeeps and trucks, driven by war booty collectors.
Smiling and waving their national flags, the drivers mingled with each other on roads that were once bloody battlefields, with a joy that contradicted the character of the event.
Europe's reconciliation with Germany and the death of the veterans over the next decade will ensure that commemoration of D-Day will not be the same when held again in 2014.
But June 2004 is still a loaded date. A few kilometers from Arromanche, about 21,000 Germans - twice as many as the Americans in Colville - are buried in the outskirts of La Camb, in a plot 10 times smaller than the Americans' cemetery. A few simple wooden crosses erected by German veterans discreetly apart from the American soldiers' cemetery mark the spot above Omaha Beach where the last German forces fell. Red candles are lit in the little chapel at the entrance, and only a handful of visitors wander among the graves. One of them is Tomas Bueter, a young German from Westphalia.
"Why shouldn't we be here?" he wanders. "We all did what had to be done as part of law and order."
Bueter made the long trip in an American military GMC truck from 1944. As an antique car
aficionado, he actually wanted to buy a German military truck "but they are rarer and very expensive. That was our problem," he explains. "Our equipment was better, but we had less of it. What could one Panzer do with 10 Shermans converging on it?"
A group of African-American veterans, whose role in history has been somewhat overlooked, got their own little ceremony for the first time on the beach.
Only 177 French Marines led by Lieutenant Philippe Kieffer landed on Normandy beach. Yesterday ten of them received the French Legion of Honor medal in a ceremony attended by Kieffer's daughter. Veterans from the Allied Forces gathered at the monastery in Caen to receive another war medal. Among them was British Ada Way, one of the few women to arrive at Normandy shore a few days after D-Day. Her Canadian fiance, who later became her husband, landed there on June 6, and she joked that for years she had chased him across Europe.
Others come here to correct an historic injustice. Vladimir Putin is the first Russian president to be invited to the Normandy invasion celebrations. In the festivities 16 years ago, French President Francois Mitterrand still said the war on Communism began on these shores. In the 50th celebrations, Russian President Boris Yeltzin was persona non grata. Putin sees the occasion as an opportunity to improve his image in the world.
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