June 6 (UPI) -- Seventy-five years after more than 150,000 Allied troops descended upon Normandy beaches to liberate German-occupied France, World War II veterans, heads of state and history buffs gathered Thursday for what's perhaps the last major anniversary for living D-Day participants.
The Allied invasion of Normandy -- called Operation Overlord, or D-Day -- was the largest seaborne invasion in history and set the stage for what ultimately proved to be an Allied victory on the Western Front of World War II. Tens of thousands of British, Canadian and U.S. troops arrived at five beachheads in the region either by parachute or through amphibious landings by sea on June 6, 1944, to beat back German troops who had control over much of France.
An emotional ceremony Thursday at Colleville-sur-Mer American Cemetery in Normandy included world leaders and surviving D-Day veterans, many of whom traveled from the United States.
"What resonates still, 75 years later, is their incredible courage and generosity," French President Emmanuel Macron said at the event. "The fortitude that carried them toward their destiny. That fortitude that had taken them thousands of miles from home to provide assistance to men and women that they did not know. To free a land they had not set foot on.
"We know what we owe, to you veterans, our freedom," Macron told a gathering of veterans seated behind him. "On behalf of my nation, I just want to say thank you."
Historians and military strategists consider D-Day a major turning point in World War II that led to Allied victory more than a year later. Estimates put the casualty figures on both sides of the battle in the thousands.
"The GIs who boarded the landing craft that morning knew that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a solider but the fate of the world," U.S. President Donald Trump said at Thursday's ceremony. "This beach, code named Omaha, was defended by the Nazis with monstrous firepower, thousands and thousands of mines and spikes so deeply, it was here that tens of thousands of Americans came."
Trump highlighted the bravery of some of the veterans, telling their stories of sacrifice on the battlefield.
"Our debt to you is everlasting. Today we express our undying gratitude," he said. "They enlisted their lives in a great crusade, one of the greatest of all time. Those who fought here won a future for our nation. They won the survival of our civilization."
Monuments and cemeteries honoring the war dead dot the Normandy landscape and each year, local groups and residents commemorate the sacrifice Allied troops made to liberate France. Every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan has visited Normandy on the D-Day anniversary to pay tribute to those lost in the battle.
"The bond between our nations was forever sealed in that 'Great Crusade,'" Trump said. "As we honor our shared victory and heritage, we affirm the common values that will unite us long into the future -- freedom, sovereignty, self-determination, the rule of law and reverence for the rights given to us by almighty God."
Trump was scheduled to meet with Macron after the ceremonies. Later Thursday, Macron was to host a ceremony at the Lorient Marine Riflemen School to pay tribute to Kieffer commandos who participated in the D-Day landings.
For the first time since since World War II, more than 30 Douglas DC-3 and C-47 Skytrain aircraft -- called Dakotas by the British -- flew over Normandy and near Duxford Airfield in Britain this week to pay tribute to the D-Day airmen.
Thursday also included displays of military equipment and vehicles, performances by military bands, parades and prayers, all representing Allied nations. The full schedule of events is listed on this D-Day anniversary website.
In the United States, ceremonies, re-enactments, memorials and parades were scheduled in Abilene, Kan., at the Eisenhower Presidential Library; Alexandria, Va.; Bedford, Va.; Louisville, Ky.; Plano, Texas; Media, Pa.; Pittsburgh; Warner Robins, Ga.; and Wheaton, Ill.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke Thursday at the National D-Day Memorial 75th Anniversary Commemorative Ceremony in Bedford, Va.
"To these and other D-Day veterans among us, I say -- gentlemen, you honor us with your presence," the vice president said. "And I want to assure you, we see you not just as you are, but as you were. We marvel at the courage you showed as young men when you stormed the beaches and faced the shadow of death without fear."