President Obama Commemorates the 70th Anniversary of D-Day


President Obama:
President Hollande; to the people of France;
friends; the family; our veterans: If prayer
were made of sound, the skies over England
that night would have deafened the world. Captains paced their decks. Pilots tapped their gauges. Commanders pored over maps,
fully aware that for all the months of meticulous
planning, everything could go wrong — — the winds, the tides,
the element of surprise — and above all, the audacious
bet that what waited on the other side of the
Channel would compel men not to shrink away,
but to charge ahead. Fresh-faced GIs rubbed
trinkets, kissed pictures of sweethearts, checked and
re-checked their equipment. “God,” asked one,
“give me guts.” And in the pre-dawn hours,
planes rumbled down runways; gliders and paratroopers
slipped through the sky; giant screws began to turn
on an armada that looked like more ships than sea. And more than 150,000 souls set
off towards this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more
than the fate of a war, but rather the course
of human history. President Hollande,
distinguished guests, I’m honored to return here
today to pay tribute to the men and women of a generation
who defied every danger — among them, our veterans
of D-Day. And, gentlemen, we are truly
humbled by your presence here today. (applause) Just last week, I received a
letter from a French citizen. “Dear Mr. President, and
the American people,” he wrote, “We are
honored to welcome you, to thank you again for
all the pain and efforts of the American people
and others in our common struggle for freedom.” Today, we say the same
to the people of France. Thank you, especially, for the
generosity that you’ve shown the Americans who’ve come
here over the generations — to these beaches, and to
this sacred place of rest for 9,387 Americans. At the end of the war, when
our ships set off for America, filled with our fallen, tens of
thousands of liberated Europeans turned out to say farewell,
and they pledged to take care of the more than 60,000
Americans who would remain in cemeteries on this continent. In the words of one man, we
will take care of the fallen “as if their tombs
were our children’s.” And the people of France, you
have kept your word like the true friends you are. We are forever grateful. (applause) Here, we don’t just
commemorate victory, as proud of that
victory as we are. We don’t just honor sacrifice,
as grateful as the world is. We come to remember why America
and our allies gave so much for the survival of liberty at
its moment of maximum peril. We come to tell the story of the
men and women who did it so that it remains seared into the
memory of a future world. We tell this story for the old
soldiers who pull themselves a little straighter
today to salute brothers who never made it home. We tell the story for the
daughter who clutches a faded photo of her
father, forever young; for the child who runs his
fingers over colorful ribbons he knows signify something
of great consequence, even if he doesn’t yet
fully understand why. We tell this story to bear what
witness we can to what happened when the boys from America
reached Omaha Beach. By daybreak, blood soaked the
water, bombs broke the sky. Thousands of paratroopers had
dropped into the wrong landing sites; thousands of rounds
bit into flesh and sand. Entire companies’ worth
of men fell in minutes. “Hell’s Beach” had
earned its name. By 8:30 a.m., General Omar
Bradley expected our troops to be a mile inland. “Six hours after the
landings,” he wrote, “we held only ten
yards of beach.” In this age of
instant commentary, the invasion would have swiftly
and roundly been declared, as it was by one
officer, “a debacle.” But such a race to judgment
would not have taken into account the
courage of free men. “Success may not come
with rushing speed, ” President Roosevelt
would say that night, “but we shall return
again and again.” And paratroopers fought
through the countryside to find one another. Rangers pulled themselves
over those cliffs to silence Nazi guns. To the west, Americans took
Utah Beach with relative ease. To the east, the British
tore through the coast, fueled by the fury of five
years of bombs over London and a solemn vow to “fight
them on the beaches.” The Canadians, whose shores
had not been touched by war, drove far into France. And here, at Omaha, troops who
finally made it to the seawall used it as shelter —
where a general barked, “If you’re Rangers,
lead the way!” By the end of that longest day,
this beach had been fought, lost, refought, and won
— a piece of Europe once again liberated and free. Hitler’s Wall was breached,
letting loose Patton’s Army to pour into France. Within a week, the world’s
bloodiest beach had become the world’s busiest port. Within a month, one million
Allied troops thundered through Normandy into Europe, and as
our armies marched across the continent, one
pilot said it looked “as if the very crust of the
Earth had shaken loose.” The Arc de Triomphe lit up
for the first time in years, and Paris was punctuated by
shouts of “Vive la France!” and “Vive les États-Unis!” (applause) Of course, even as
we gather here at Normandy, we remember that freedom’s
victory was also made possible by so many others who
wore America’s uniform. Two years before he
commanded armies, Eisenhower’s troops sliced
through North Africa. Three times before D-Day,
our GIs stormed the beaches at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio. Divisions like the Fighting
36th brawled their way through Italy, fighting through
the mud for months, marching through towns past
waving children before opening the gates to Rome. As the “dogfaces” marched
to victory in Europe, the Devil Dogs — the Marines —
clawed their way from island to island in some of the
war’s fiercest fighting. And back home, an army of women
— including my grandmother — rolled up their sleeves
to help build a mighty arsenal of democracy. But it was here, on these
shores, that the tide was turned in that common
struggle for freedom. What more powerful manifestation
of America’s commitment to human freedom than the sight
of wave after wave after wave of young men boarding those
boats to liberate people they had never met? We say it now as if it
couldn’t be any other way. But in the annals of history,
the world had never seen anything like it. And when the war was won, we
claimed no spoils of victory — we helped Europe rebuild. We claimed no land other than
the earth where we buried those who gave their lives
under our flag and where we station those who
still serve under it. But America’s claim — our
commitment — to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim
to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being
— that claim is written in the blood on these beaches,
and it will endure for eternity. Omaha — Normandy — this
was democracy’s beachhead. And our victory in that war
decided not just a century, but shaped the security and
well-being of all posterity. We worked to turn old
adversaries into new allies. We built new prosperity. We stood once more with the
people of this continent through a long twilight struggle until
finally a wall tumbled down, and an Iron Curtain, too. And from Western Europe to
East, from South America to Southeast Asia — 70 years
of democratic movement spread. And nations that once
knew only the blinders of fear began to taste
the blessings of freedom. None of that would have happened
without the men who were willing to lay down their
lives for people they’d never met and ideals they
couldn’t live without. None of it would have happened
without the troops President Roosevelt called “the
life-blood of America, the hope of the world.” They left home barely more than
boys and returned home heroes. But to their great
credit, that is not how this generation carried itself. After the war, some
put away their medals, were quiet about their
service, moved on. Some, carrying
shrapnel and scars, found that moving
on was much harder. Many, like my grandfather,
who served in Patton’s Army, lived a quiet life, trading
one uniform and set of responsibilities for
another — as a teacher, or a salesman, or a doctor, or
an engineer, a dad, a grandpa. Our country made sure
millions of them earned a college education,
opening up opportunity on an unprecedented scale. And they married those
sweethearts and bought new homes and raised families
and built businesses, lifting up the greatest middle
class the world has ever known. And through it all, they
were inspired, I suspect, by memories of their fallen
brothers — memories that drove them to live their lives each
day as best they possibly could. Whenever the world
makes you cynical, stop and think of these men. Whenever you lose hope,
stop and think of these men. Think of Wilson Colwell, who was
told he couldn’t pilot a plane without a high school degree,
so he decided to jump out of a plane instead. And he did, here on D-Day,
with the 101st Airborne when he was just 16 years old. Think of Harry Kulkowitz,
the Jewish son of Russian immigrants, who fudged his age
at enlistment so he could join his friends in the fight. And don’t worry, Harry, the
statute of limitations has expired. (laughter) Harry came ashore at
Utah Beach on D-Day. And now that he’s come
back, we said he could have anything he wants for lunch
today — he helped liberate this coast, after all. But he said a hamburger
would do fine. (laughter) What’s more
American than that? Think of “Rock” Merritt, who
saw a recruitment poster asking him if he was man
enough to be a paratrooper — so he signed up on the spot. And that decision landed
him here on D-Day with the 508th regiment, a unit that
would suffer heavy casualties. And 70 years later, it’s said
that all across Fort Bragg, they know Rock — not just
for his exploits on D-Day, or his 35 years in the Army, but
because 91-year-old Rock Merritt still spends his time speaking
to the young men and women of today’s Army and
still bleeds “O.D. Green” for his 82nd Airborne. Whenever the world
makes you cynical, whenever you doubt that courage
and goodness is possible — stop and think of these men. Wilson and Harry and
Rock, they are here today, and although I know we already
gave them a rousing round of applause, along with all our
veterans of D-Day — if you can stand, please stand; if not,
please raise your hand. Let us recognize your
service once more. (applause) These men waged war so
that we might know peace. They sacrificed so
that we might be free. They fought in hopes of a
day when we’d no longer need to fight. We are grateful to them. (applause) And, gentlemen, I want
each of you to know that your legacy is
in good hands. For in a time when it has never
been more tempting to pursue narrow self-interest, to
slough off common endeavor, this generation of Americans,
a new generation — our men and women of war — have chosen
to do their part as well. Rock, I want you
to know that Staff Sergeant Melvin
Cedillo-Martin, who’s here today, is following
in your footsteps. He just had to become an
American first — because Melvin was born in Honduras, moved
to the United States, joined the Army. After tours in Iraq
and Afghanistan, he was reassigned to
the 82nd Airborne. And Sunday, he’ll
parachute into Normandy. (applause) “I became part of a family of real American
heroes,” he said. “The Paratroopers of the 82nd.” Wilson, you should know that
Specialist Jannise Rodriguez joined the Army not
even two years ago, was assigned to
the 101st Airborne, and just last month
earned the title of the 101st Airborne
Division Air Assault Soldier of the Year. And that’s inspiring
but not surprising, when the women of today’s
military have taken on responsibilities, including
combat, like never before. (applause) I want each of you to know
that their commitment to their fellow servicemembers
and veterans endures. Sergeant First Class Brian
Hawthorne’s grandfather served under General Patton
and General MacArthur. Brian himself served
two tours in Iraq, earned the Bronze Star in
Baghdad for saving the life of his best friend, and
today, he and his wife use their experience
to help other veterans and military families
navigate theirs. And Brian is here in Normandy to
participate in Sunday’s jump, and here, just yesterday, he
reenlisted in the Army Reserve. And this generation — this 9/11
Generation of servicemembers — they, too, felt something. They answered some call;
they said “I will go.” They, too, chose to serve a
cause that’s greater than self — many even after they knew
they’d be sent into harm’s way. And for more than a decade, they
have endured tour after tour. Sergeant First Class Cory
Remsburg has served ten. And I’ve told Cory’s
incredible story before, most recently when he sat
with my wife, Michelle, at the State of
the Union address. It was here, at Omaha Beach, on
the 65th anniversary of D-Day, where I first met Cory and
his fellow Army Rangers, right after they made their
own jump into Normandy. The next time I saw him,
he was in the hospital, unable to speak or walk
after an IED nearly killed him in Afghanistan. But over the past five years,
Cory has grown stronger, learning to speak again and
stand again and walk again. And earlier this year, he
jumped out of a plane again. The first words Cory said to me
after his accident echoed those words first shouted all those
years ago on this beach: “Rangers lead the way.” (applause) So Cory has come back today, along with Melvin and
Jannise and Brian, and many of their fellow
active-duty servicemembers. We thank them for their service. They are a reminder that
the tradition represented by these gentlemen continues. We are on this Earth for
only a moment in time. And fewer of us have parents and
grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day
did here 70 years ago. As I was landing on Marine
One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time
where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to
have him here, than this day. So we have to tell
their stories for them. We have to do our best to
uphold in our own lives the values that they were
prepared to die for. We have to honor those who
carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people
cannot live in freedom unless free people are
prepared to die for it. And as today’s wars
come to an end, this generation of servicemen
and women will step out of uniform, and they, too,
will build families and lives of their own. They, too, will become
leaders in their communities, in commerce, in industry,
and perhaps politics — the leaders we need for the
beachheads of our time. And, God willing, they, too,
will grow old in the land they helped to keep free. And someday, future generations,
whether 70 or 700 years hence, will gather at places like this
to honor them and to say that these were generations of men
and women who proved once again that the United States of
America is and will remain the greatest force for freedom
the world has ever known. (applause) May God bless our veterans
and all who served with them, including those who
rest here in eternal peace. And may God bless all who
serve today for the peace and security of the world. May God bless the
people of France. And may God bless our
United States of America. (applause)

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