ALLIED leaders and veterans from their countries hailed the democratic system for which World War II was fought and won in a day of commemoration yesterday on the D-Day beaches of Normandy. More than 150,000 Allied troops stormed this coastline 50 years ago.
Under wet, gray skies reminiscent of the day, President Clinton joined his Canadian and European partners in invoking the sacrifices of soldiers - those who lived, and those who died - who made the solidification and spread of Western freedoms possible.
In a day of rhetoric as bracing as the winds that whipped the Allied flags flying everywhere here, democracy and those who defended it were the shining stars. From Pointe du Hoc and Utah Beach, to Bayeux, Courselles, Omaha Beach, and finally the American Military Cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mer, speeches echoed the idea that freedom, humanity's greatest gift, must always be watched over and defended.
President Clinton told two-dozen US Ranger veterans assembled at Pointe du Hoc yesterday morning, ``The most difficult days of your lives bought us 50 years of freedom.''
Describing the harrowing assault the 2nd Ranger Battalion made that morning up the sheer 100-foot cliffs just a few feet behind him, the president said, ``We look at this terrain, and we marvel at your fight. We are the sons and daughters you saved from tyranny's reach.'' He described D-Day as the tip of a ``spear'' the free world plunged into Nazi Germany's heart.
Dick Hathaway, 5th Ranger Battalion veteran and Ranger Association president, told an audience assembled among crumbling Nazi bunkers that the lesson he and other fighting men left with was ``nations can and should unite to form the strongest bonds, devoted to all mankind that they may enjoy freedom from oppression, freedom from fear ... freedom of expression, and freedom of religion.''
Following the Pointe du Hoc ceremony, Mr. Clinton joined French President Francois Mitterrand for a tribute to enduring Franco-American relations at the Utah Beach landing site. A binational color guard and overfly symbolized the strength of a two-century-plus friendship.
The leaders of the 14 Allied nations gathered for a final ceremony on Omaha Beach, the largest D-Day landing site, where thousands of veterans and invited guests reviewed a rousing show of military pageantry and music.
President Mitterrand, who spoke for all the leaders at the ceremony, concluded an energetic homage to freedom's force by calling for a future of increased dialogue among all nations. ``Let's go,'' he said in English, ``allons-y.''
Clinton outlined the day's theme of homage to democratic principles at Pointe du Hoc. Framed by American battleships anchored in a steel-gray sea, he noted that the Pointe du Hoc Rangers, like all their Allied comrades, were armed with the distinct advantages their inculcation in a democratic system had given them. Noting that most of the D-Day soldiers were young men, he said, ``Most of them were new to war, but all were armed with the ingenuity of free citizens.''
His point, one developed by D-Day historians on both sides of the Atlantic, is exemplified by Leonard Lomell, a Toms River, N.J., 2nd Ranger Battalion veteran who helped the president lay a wreath at the Pointe du Hoc memorial.
THE 2nd Battalion's first mission in scaling the formidable Pointe du Hoc cliffs was to take out the large German guns thought to be encased on top. When the Rangers, after suffering staggering losses, reached the top, they discovered the encasements were empty. That's where the ``ingenuity'' Clinton spoke of kicked in. Setting off on an impromptu, two-man gun hunt with Ranger Jack Coon, Mr. Lomell located the five 155-millimeter cannons in a nearby apple orchard. With a group of unsuspecting German soldiers positioned within sight, he disarmed the guns and bashed the gun sites with a rifle butt. As a result, guns capable of reaching Utah and Omaha beaches and ships waiting offshore were destroyed.
Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, an ebullient Lomell praised Clinton for stressing the duties of the post-D-Day generations: ``As a baby boomer himself, he was addressing his generation and the subsequent generation. It was an outstanding speech.''
Refusing to comment on Clinton's efforts as a young man to avoid Vietnam-era military service, the vet said, ``You won't find one veteran out here who doesn't salute him. He's our commanding officer, and he's the president.''
Concluding that the free world still has ``cliffs to scale,'' Clinton said: ``We must work to contain the world's most deadly weapons,'' a clear reference to North Korea, ``to expand the reach of democracy... [to] keep ready arms and strong alliances.'' He said it could never be the job of just the soldiers, noting that democracy's great battle was won by ``every shipbuilder who built a landing craft ... every child who tended a victory garden.''
Some of the thousands of American World War II veterans visiting Europe during the 50th anniversary have questioned US and Allied determination to meet future tyrants - and the public understanding of the sacrifices demanded by the democratic system. But Lomell said he does not doubt that the US is up to mustering the ``resourcefulness'' needed to meet a threat similar to that faced 50 years ago.
``Just look at these young rangers,'' he said, gesturing to the active-duty rangers assembled for the ceremony. ``They're magnificent.''