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Obama: D-Day forged 'beachhead' for new democratic age


President Barack Obama Friday paid poetic tribute to the men who breached "Hitler's Wall" and stormed ashore to liberate Europe on D-Day 70 years ago, saying their sacrifice secured a still-evolving age of democracy and freedom.

Obama, speaking as a commander-in-chief who wound down the Iraq war and will end US combat in Afghanistan this year, movingly told the dwindling numbers of living D-Day survivors at the Omaha Beach American cemetery in Normandy, that their legacy was safe with a fresh generation of veterans.

American ordinance again split the sky over the beach with a 21-gun salute, and elderly veterans in wheelchairs were pushed past the graves of comrades who did not live to grow old, proudly wearing medals and regimental caps.

The president conjured up the moments of carnage and courage when allied forces left an armada of boats early on June 6, 1944 in the English Channel and walked into a torrent of Nazi fire to liberate Europe.

"By daybreak, blood soaked the water, and 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 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."

- Heroism and humility -

Despite weaving a parable of great deeds, Obama could not prevent letting his own resentment at the way he is covered seep into his remarks, delivered from a monument gazing out at row after row of marble crosses in a cemetery where 9,387 soldiers killed during the Battle of Normandy lie buried.

He recalled how at first, the invasion did not go well, raising the prospect of a devastating reverse for the allies.

"In our age of instant commentary, the invasion would have been swiftly and roundly declared, as it was by one officer, 'a debacle.'"

Obama frequently critiques the modern media industry, which he regards, with some exceptions as shallow and short termist

He also cited the heroism of World War II veterans and the humility of the survivors as an antidote to modern-day selfishness at an event also attended by French President Francois Hollande.

"Whenever the world makes you cynical -- stop and think of these men," he said, hailing the deeds of American Wilson Colwell who jumped into Normandy with the 101st Airborne on D-Day, aged 16, and returned Friday to honour his comrades.

The tumultous history of Europe mixed with the complicated reality of its modern politics as Obama wrapped up a four-day trip dedicated to reassuring allies of US fidelity seven decades after World War II.

He was later to come face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a leaders lunch in a Normandy Chateau, after spending months ostracising him over the annexation of Ukraine.

- 'Legacy in good hands' -

The president also drew a clear line between the fruit of World War II struggles and political strife.

"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," he said.

"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.

"From Western Europe to East; from South America to Southeast Asia; 70 years of democratic movements spread."

After sending thousands of young men and women off to war himself, Obama also paid homage to America's new generation of warriors.

"Gentlemen, I want each of you to know that your legacy is in good hands," Obama told the D-Day veterans in the crowd.

"For in a time when it has never been more tempting to pursue narrow self-interest and slough off common endeavour, this generation of Americans - our men and women of war -- have chosen to do their part as well. "

Obama, whose White House is being accused of breaking promises to care for returning veterans amid an administrative scandal in the Veterans Affairs department, said history would come to remember the heroism of the generation that signed up after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

"This generation -- this 9/11 Generation of service members - they, too, felt some tug; they answered some call; they said 'I'll go.'"