COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER FRANCE - President Barack Obama paid tribute on Friday to US veterans who 70 years ago stormed the beaches of northern France, telling them their spirit of courage and sacrifice is being continued by a new generation of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
More than 250 World War Two veterans in their late 80s and early 90s, many of them frail, traveled to Omaha Beach to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
For most, it likely will be the last time they are able to witness a milestone anniversary of the Allied invasion in northern France that helped bring the defeat of Nazi Germany.
"Whenever the world makes you cynical - stop and think of these men," Obama told the audience of 14,500 people.
A 21-gun salute and a fly-over by F16 fighter jets shook the cemetery, where 9,387 white marble headstones mark graves of American soldiers lost in battle.
"It was here, on these shores, that the tide was turned in that common struggle for freedom," Obama said, recounting the drama and bloodshed of D-Day on the sweeping beach that lies below the cemetery.
Obama told the stories of several veterans, including 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper Kenneth "Rock" Merritt, who is from Oklahoma but now lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He was dropped in the dead of night behind enemy lines, one of the first to reach French soil.
Merritt, now 90, said he remembered how dark it was, and how terrifying: "Oh hell, I was standing in that plane, 2:30 in the morning, and it was rocking people sick, bullets flying everywhere, and I prayed to God to live 'til daylight," he said in an interview.
"Some guy said, 'Rock, what do you want to live to daylight for?' I said, "I want to see who's trying to kill me.'"
It was Merritt's first time at a D-Day ceremony in Normandy and only his second time back since the war.
"I've got a lot of people out there," Merritt said. "I think about them all the time."