COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France - Some stood still on Omaha Beach, staring at a tide once turned red by the blood of their comrades. Others shared war tales in bunkers once occupied by enemy snipers.
American World War II veterans gathered yesterday along France's Normandy coastline to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the first breach of Hitler's Atlantic wall.
Now gray-haired and many needing canes for support, an estimated 1,000 U.S. veterans, accompanied by at least 1,500 family members, retraced their steps along beaches, cliffs and roads where thousands of men were gunned down by German machine-gun fire and mortars.
Proud of their exploits, many of the veterans said they wouldn't wish warfare on anybody.
"War is the greatest catastrophe known to mankind," said 81-year-old Belton Cooper, who as a member of the Third Armored Division waded ashore onto Omaha Beach in 1944. "It must be avoided at all cost."
As an Army Ranger, Len Lomell scaled cliffs at Pointe du Hoc on D-Day to knock out German gun emplacements aimed at the code-named Omaha and Utah beaches.
"War is insane. Ridiculous," he said. "I don't want to see one American boy die in the Balkans."
There are 9,386 American servicemen buried on the Normandy bluff; 14,000 others were exhumed and reburied back home at the wish of their families. Pristine white crosses and Stars of David stretch across a 172-acre memorial just above Omaha Beach, the deadliest of the D-Day beachheads.
German gunners poured 100,000 rounds a minute on it over a two-hour period after the landings began on June 6. Troops lunged off landing craft and through water. The lucky ones made it and then had a perilous sprint across the sand to the seawall.
About 60,000 Americans, most of whom had no combat experience, landed on the Normandy coastline on D-Day. They fought alongside thousands of others from Britain and Canada. Flags of the three countries, and the French Tricolor, were draped along streets yesterday.
U.S. Ambassador to France Felix Rohatyn, at a ceremony at the American cemetery where wreaths were laid and a 21-gun salute boomed, said today's "democratic, prosperous Europe is the finest monument" to the veterans' exploits.
"I ask the children here today to look around - you are in the company of real heroes," he said.
Rohatyn, who as a 12-year-old Jewish boy escaped Nazi-occupied France, paid tribute to U.S. and other NATO troops now in Macedonia.
"The fight for freedom never finishes," he said.