D-Day Remembered: Soldiers' sacrifice was the price of freedom: Julian Nundy reports from Omaha Beach, where thousands lost their lives

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The Independent Online
ON THE BEACH where 2,000 Americans died in two hours 50 years ago, the Second World War Allies paid tribute to the sacrifice of their soldiers yesterday.

At the main international ceremony of the D-Day anniversary, President Francois Mitterrand reminded an audience including the Queen and President Bill Clinton that modern Europe owed its freedom to what General Omar Bradley called a 'thin line of khaki' which pushed the Nazis out of France and led to their defeat.

The modern world still suffered from concentration camps, torture and slow death - notably in the former Yugoslavia and parts of Africa - and quoting General Dwight D Eisenhower's words on 5 June 1944, Mr Mitterrand said: 'It's our time to say 'let's go'.'

The president's speech wound up a ceremony where weather conditions similar to those prevailing 50 years ago, particularly low cloud, curtailed some of the planned aircraft displays and halted altogether a finale by nine skydivers. A flypast of period aircraft was limited to three Dakotas and a second formation comprising a B-17 Flying Fortress and two P51 Mustang fighters.

Then, five French amphibious craft marked with the names of the five invasion beaches - Utah, Omaha, Juno, Sword and Gold - landed on the beach carrying standard-bearers from the units which took part in the landings.

US Navy ships provided a backdrop with the USS George Washington, the world's largest fighting vessel, dominating an offshore parade.

Despite the presence of heads of state and government from nine nations and the military music and pomp, it was an occasion far less poignant than many of the smaller commemorations in war cemeteries or on other beaches where combat veterans were more in evidence.

Omaha Beach saw the bloodiest combat of D-Day. Landing craft trying to get through three lines of sea defences brought often inexperienced men of the 25th Infantry Division to their deaths at the hands of Germany's 352nd Attack Division which had been hardened on the Russian front. The Germans, firing from the clifftops, pinned down the Americans until they ran out of ammunition.

Walter Ehlers, a US veteran who lost his brother at Omaha, told in an address how he had sailed from England with 'ships in front and at each side as far as we could see', and 'planes from horizon to horizon'. The message of D-Day, he said, was that 'things worth fighting for are sometimes worth dying for'.

Mr Mitterrand's speech praising an operation which 'surprised those who were hoping for it and those who feared it' was the only public address by the politicians present.

In addition, recordings of Eisenhower's order of the day to the men under his command and Charles de Gaulle's broadcast from the BBC in London saying 'the supreme battle has begun' were played.

In the crowd, Robert Miller, from Kansas City, who suffered a bullet wound on Omaha at the age of 20 that left him paralysed from the waist down, told how his own landing at 7am on 6 June 1944 was delayed when his craft hit a mine.

The landing craft went back out to sea to collect more men while the wounded were tended to. On its second run, it hit another mine and Mr Miller, a combat engineer corporal, jumped into the sea to swim to shore. He was hit by sniper fire just after he reached the beach. 'I have been thinking about my buddies who died every day since then,' he said.