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Jim Martin, a 93-year-old World War II veteran, completes a tandem parachute jump to commemorate the D-Day invasion.

Visitors descend on Normandy

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France – Ceremonies to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day are drawing thousands of visitors to the cemeteries, beaches and stone-walled villages of Normandy this week, including some of the few remaining survivors of the largest sea-borne invasion ever mounted.

World leaders and dignitaries including President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II will gather to honor the more than 150,000 American, British, Canadian and other Allied D-Day veterans who risked and gave their lives to defeat Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

For many visitors, the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, with its 9,387 white marble tombstones on a bluff overlooking the site of the battle’s bloodiest fighting at Omaha Beach, is the emotional centerpiece of pilgrimages to honor the tens of thousands of men killed on D-Day and the months of fighting afterward.

D-Day veteran Clair Martin, 93, said he’s come back to Omaha Beach three times in the last 70 years – “four if you count the time they were shooting at me.”

Ceremonies large and small took place across Normandy, ahead of an international summit today in Ouistreham, a small port that was the site of a strategic battle on D-Day. Fireworks lit up the sky Thursday night to mark the anniversary.

French President Francois Hollande’s decision to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to participate in the official ceremony is being seen by some as justified recognition of the Soviet Union’s great sacrifice in defeating Hitler, but by others as a distraction given the West’s dispute with Russia over Ukraine.

Russian paratroopers joined the commemorations late Thursday, jumping down onto the town of Arromanches waving a Russian flag, in a reminder of their role fighting the Nazis on the eastern front in World War II and the millions of lives the Soviet Union lost.

With many D-Day veterans now in their 90s, this year’s anniversary has the added poignancy of being the last time that many of those who took part in the battle will be able to make the long journey back to Normandy and tell their stories.

“Three minutes after landing a mortar blew up next to me and I lost my K-rations,” said Curtis Outen, 92, of Pageland, South Carolina. Outen, making his first return to Normandy since the war, related the loss of his military-issued meal packet as though it happened yesterday.

“Then I cut my arm in the barbed wire entanglements. After that, I was all right.”

By midmorning, hundreds of visitors walked among the cemetery’s long rows of white crosses and stars of David. Schoolchildren and retirees, soldiers in uniform and veterans in wheelchairs quietly move from grave to grave, pausing to read the brief inscriptions that can only give hints of the lives laid to rest there:

Edward H. Gesner, Pvt 116 Inf, 29 Div, Massachusetts, July 1 1944.

Richard Frank Geigner, PFC 298 Engr Combat Bn, Illinois, June 6, 1944.

Louis Carter Jr, Pvt 8 Inf 4 Div, New Jersey, July 26, 1944.

One young woman stood quietly in soft rain, hand over her heart, and tearfully placed a red rose at a tombstone that read “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known But to God.”

“I just wanted to pay tribute,” said Marissa Neitling, 30, of Lake Oswego, Oregon.

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