COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — On a hauntingly serene morning that provided a sharp contrast to what French President Jacques Chirac called "the dark night of oblivion" 60 years ago, world leaders Sunday commemorated the bloody D-day invasion that led to victory in World War II.
Led by Chirac and President Bush, the cliff-top ceremonies were attended by thousands of aging American veterans, some of whom had not returned since they glimpsed France's Normandy coast from a distance in the half-light of dawn on June 6, 1944.
As the two presidents took turns extolling the brave American GIs who breached Hitler's Atlantic Wall, neat rows of white, marble markers -- 9,387 of them -- stood on the grassy fields of the Normandy American Cemetery, each representing a fallen warrior.
Calling them "the legendary heroes of Operation Overlord," Chirac told their surviving comrades that "our spirit is indeed uplifted by the absolute ideals of these youngsters who offered up their last breath to save the world."
Chirac said he spoke for every French citizen in expressing France's "eternal gratitude and unparalleled debt" to the American soldiers.
"They are now our sons also," he said.
Chirac also presented the Legion of Honor, France's most prestigious award, to 14 D-day veterans. Among them was Charles Hostler, 84, of Coronado, Calif., who worked with the Office of Strategic Services to get false Allied troop reports sent to the Germans. Ninety-nine other Americans had received the Legion of Honor on Saturday in Paris.
The outdoor ceremony was followed by a gathering of leaders from nearly 20 nations, including Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the first leader of that country to participate in D-day ceremonies.
Many veterans said they did not object to Schroeder's presence in Normandy.
"I've long ago forgiven the Germans," said Howard Beach, a La Mirada man who returned here for the first time. He was 19 when he set foot on Omaha Beach. He turned 79 on Tuesday.
Early Sunday, this tiny village was enshrouded in thick fog. Air Force One was able to land at an airport 25 miles to the southeast only on the third attempt. As the crowds grew and the ceremony neared, the fog gave way to brilliant sunshine.
It was on a gray, rainy Tuesday morning 60 years ago that the Allies, under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, dispatched 156,000 troops to northern France in a drive to defeat the Nazis.
Although Chirac and Bush delivered the speeches Sunday, the stars of the day were "the boys of Pointe du Hoc," as the late President Reagan famously put it here in 1984, referring to the GIs who overcame enemy fire as they struggled for a foothold from which to launch the liberation of the western half of Europe.
In his opening remarks, Bush paid homage to Reagan, who died Saturday. "Twenty summers ago, another American president came here to Normandy to pay tribute to the men of D-day," Bush said. "He was a courageous man himself and a gallant leader in the cause of freedom. And today we honor the memory of Ronald Reagan."
In the audience were actor Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg -- whose "Saving Private Ryan" chronicled the landing -- and former Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.), a onetime bomber pilot who ran unsuccessfully for the White House in 1972.
But veterans received the VIP treatment. "It's exciting," said Lester Bauman, 83, a Parma, Ohio, man who was a demolition specialist. "This brings back a lot of good and bad memories.... It was a fouled-up mess."
Bauman said he was lucky to have survived D-day. A mortar shell that wounded him killed four others. He said that while he had no objections to Schroeder's presence, he was "a little disappointed" by the anti-Iraq war stances adopted by Schroeder and Chirac.
Bauman said he was similarly disappointed by what he called Bush's "misreading of the [prewar] intelligence," which led the president and his advisors to justify the war on the premise that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
So far, such weapons have not been found.
Another returning veteran was retired Army Maj. Gen. Harold Parfitt, 82, who was a combat engineer. He was accompanied by his daughter, Karen Hughes, a top former Bush White House aide who remains a presidential confidant.
"It was pretty grim," said Parfitt, who went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam. While strolling the cemetery, he ran into a man who had been at his side when they sloshed toward shore 60 years ago. They had not seen each other again until Sunday.
In their remarks, Chirac and Bush spoke of the long-standing friendship between France and the United States, not mentioning their recent differences over the Iraq war, which Chirac actively opposed and continues to question.
"Our two peoples have stood shoulder to shoulder," the French president said. "And this friendship remains intact to this day.... America is our eternal ally."
"America honors all the liberators who fought here in the noblest of causes," Bush said. "And America would do it again for our friends."