The Longest Day: WWII Vets Mark D-Day Anniversary
Thousands of World War II veterans gathered on the northern shores of Normandy, France, on Friday to mark the 70th anniversary one of the most decisive events in human history: D-Day.
The aging veterans received a hero's welcome from world leaders, including President Barack Obama.
"What more powerful manifestation of America's commitment to human freedom than the sight of wave after wave of young men boarding those boats to liberate people they'd never met," President Obama said.
On June 6, 1944, thousands of Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in France. Their mission: to take back the heart of Western civilization from the Hitler's Third Reich.
It was the largest international troop invasion ever assembled by sea against a regime that defined modern evil. Most of the boys who landed first on Omaha Beach in a hail of German artillery didn't come home.
Michael Vernillo, son of immigrant parents from Pittsburgh, came in the second wave of troops. He recalled being frightened.
"Who isn't afraid, you know?" Vernillo said. "I didn't think I'd come out alive because the men were dead. They had to move them with bulldozers so we could land."
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, D-Day's supreme allied commander, made the fateful decision to launch the invasion.
The seas were rough, the skies didn't look promising, and nearly everything was stacked against the British, American, French and Canadian forces coming ashore.
"And some of them, I know, drowned. And some, there was a little wee boat there to take us to shore and I was up to water here," Vernillo said, pointing to his neck.
A Bittersweet Reunion
Seventy years later in the U.K., a group of British and American veterans gathered for another channel crossing.
"I've never seen a sight like it, and I never will again," Frank Whalley, a British D-Day veteran, said.
This week on the coast of France, there were ceremonies to honor the dwindling number of living veterans who risked their lives for freedom.
Bill Colwell was 16 when he landed at Normandy.
"This means a lot to those of us who fought over here, and the people are so gracious. They cannot do enough for us," Colwell said.
Today's military leaders learned much from the group called "the greatest generation."
"From 1944 to now we've learned a lot about the difficulties of war, the tragedy of war," said Lt. Gen. Donald M. Campbell, Jr., the commanding general of U.S. Army Europe. Nobody wants to go to war."
"And there's certainly lessons to be learned from that, but I think to have all of the nations here, to include our German friends now, I think it speaks volumes about how far we have come and the relationships that we have formed," he added.
France will bestow Vernillo and seven others this week with a medal from the nation's Legion of Honor.
"I fought every battle in France; I lost all my officers," Vernillo recalled. "They were all killed. My captain and two officers were all killed."
And for a few days at least, a grateful West remembers their sacrifice.