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The French Embassy in Washington Honors 100 American D-Day Veterans (2)

The French Embassy in Washington Honors 100 American D-Day Veterans (2)

Speech by Denis Pietton, Deputy Chief of Mission, at a ceremony commemorating the 60th Anniversary of D-Day at the French Embassy.  Source: Embassy of France, Washington D.C., June 3, 2004.

Dear Veterans, Mr. Secretary, Distinguished members of Congress, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a great honor to welcome you all today at the French Embassy in Washington. Our gathering is only the first step in a long and impressive series of events that will take place here, in Paris and in Normandy to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-DAY.

It will be historic moment and an exceptional occasion for us, French and Europeans, to show how grateful we are for what was accomplished then, a special moment to say « thank you » to America.

Next Sunday, on June 6, fifteen Heads of State will be in Normandy and thousands of men and women —most of whom were not even born that day— will be gathered there, and millions of people will follow these ceremonies throughout the world.

All will pay tribute to all those soldiers who sacrificed their young lives in France and Europe and to the veterans that are fortunately still among us to remember.

Today, we are specially proud and honored to have with us one hundred of these heroes, who did nothing less than save not only France, not only Europe, but the whole world from tyranny and oppression. To pay tribute to this outstanding deed, they have been invited to France to attend the commemorations and receive the Legion of Honor, France's most prestigious award.

To pay a most deserved tribute to these veterans, let’s remember the significance of our presence here today.

Exactly 60 years ago, on June 6, 1944, the destiny of France and Europe, and the future of freedom in the world, hung in the balance in Normandy.

The previous day, nearly 7,000 vessels had set out carrying 130,000 men who would land on the French coast. During the night, Allied aircrafts flew into action, dropping the first pathfinders ahead of the airborne divisions that followed with 6,600 American paratroopers. Before daybreak, Sainte-Mère l’Eglise was liberated.

At dawn, the fleet opened fire on the defenses of the Atlantic Wall. The first units to land were American. At exactly 6:30, the first wave of assault reached the sands of Utah Beach.

The fiercest fighting took place at Omaha Beach, “Bloody Omaha.” The intact defenses fired on the landing crafts and the soldiers who were still prisoners of the raging seas. The first units of the 1st and 29th infantry divisions were decimated.

The situation remained critical for a long time. But audacity and courage triumphed over adversity. Two kinds of men will remain on these beaches, predicted an officer: the dead and the dying. First one by one, then in groups, the soldiers gained a foothold on the Norman shores.

When evening fell, more than 156,000 Allied soldiers had set foot on French soil. Nearly 3,000 were dead and 9,000 were wounded. The outcome of the battle remained uncertain. But the liberation of France and Europe was under way.

  • Dear Veterans,

You were under fire sixty years ago. You experienced the hell of those battles. You were there for us.

Sixty years have passed and sometimes we have trouble imagining that this Landing might have failed, as though the extraordinary nature of the operation and the sacrifices of thousands of soldiers could have guaranteed its result in advance.

Sacrifice was an essential condition of victory and you accepted it. To end Nazi barbarity, you knew that you, yourselves, or your comrades, could die that day.

The fighting that took place was proof of what men are willing to do to defend the ideals of freedom and justice.

We talk about freedom. But today I want to pay tribute not to men who have spoken eloquently about freedom. I want to pay tribute to those men who suffered in their bones for freedom. Who agonized for freedom, who saw their companions die and who went through hell for freedom.

That freedom was not their freedom, their families’ freedom, their country’s freedom.

It was our freedom, the freedom of the French people, of Europe; the freedom of our parents and of our children.

Each of those soldiers left his family, his friends and his country with a heavy heart. They all hoped to live, to see victory and to return home.

To all —to those who lost their lives and to those who survived, I want to express, through the veterans who are gathered here today, France’s eternal gratitude and the unequalled debt of the free world.

Sixty years ago, you gave your blood to France and to the French people. Many did not return. They will stay forever in Normandy. They will stay forever in our hearts.

  • We will never forget.

I want you to know that for all of us, for all the French people, you are heroes. Heroes because we know how much courage and bravery it took to land on these hostile beaches, to drop from those planes, to fight a ferocious and merciless enemy.

The images of that day are part of our collective memory. Gratitude and remembrance are forever entrenched in our souls. I want all of you to know that you have a special place in my heart and in the hearts of every Frenchman and the presence among us of many students from Washington schools shows that our message of appreciation transcends generations.

Your sacrifice was not in vain. It changed the course of history. It gave back to millions of Europeans the incredible hope of living in freedom.

  • Ladies and Gentlemen,

Twice in the last century, in 1917 and 1944, American soldiers restored freedom to my country, to my continent. We will never forget. France will never forget. Europe will never forget.

We know that the United States paid the heaviest price during those terrible and heroic days, France knows what it owes the United States.

To all Americans who are here with us today I want to express France’s double message of brotherhood and gratitude.

For more than 200 years, our two countries have stood together to win, defend and reconquer their freedom. From Yorktown to D-Day, from the War of Independence to the battles of the Great War, our two countries have stood, side by side, to defend a certain idea of the world.

France came to your aid in the founding days of your own great and then young nation, for it had recognized in the torch of liberty that you held high its own hope for a more just world.

In the name of that heritage and those ideals, you twice crossed the Atlantic.

You bore arms to ensure the triumph of the values that today belong to all humanity: a certain idea of man, his dignity, peace, freedom, democracy, respect for others.

Thanks to you, we know that the outcome of this battle is never certain. We know that these values are still threatened and that we must stand ready to defend them.

  • Dear Veterans,

To show our gratitude, the President of the French Republic has decided to award to you the Legion of Honor – « the Red Ribbon », France's most prestigious award created more than two hundred years ago by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the highest honor that France can give to those who have accomplished distinctive deeds for France. You wanted France to be free and you fought to liberate France. What higher deed can there be than yours?

A special Air France flight will soon take you back to France to receive this award and attend the D-Day commemorations.

The official Award Ceremony, where all but one of you will be presented with the French Legion of Honor by the French Minister of Defense and the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, will take place the 5th of June in Paris at the Hotel des Invalides, the most prestigious historical military building in Paris.

You will then all head to Normandy on a special train. There, you will attend the commemorations and the last of your group will be bestowed with the insignia of the Legion of Honor by the President of the French Republic himself the 6th of June during the international ceremony at Arromanches.

I want to end by thanking all those who made this endeavor possible.

First of all, the US department of Veterans affairs – which had the difficult task of selecting the one hundred veterans for this trip. We worked very hard together for several months now and I want to commend you for your outstanding cooperation.

Secondly, Air France for allowing us to transform a regular flight into a special one dedicated to the veterans, and I’d like to thank M. Tardieu, chief of staff to the CEO in Paris, for being here with us.

Also, the French companies, associations and individuals, represented here by Serge Bellanger, president of the French-American Chamber of commerce, who accepted sponsoring part of the trip. I can’t name them all, but I must mention at least “Invest in France” Agency, Sodexho and the American Association of the French Legion of Honor.

Some other companies decided to make special gifts to the veterans and I would like to thank Michelin for its idea to reedit the 1944 map of the D-Day landing – that will accompany the veterans to their trip back to France and Normandy. To conclude, I’d like to save the last thank you, once again, to you, dear veterans : Today, it is a privilege as well as a real pleasure to have you here just before your departure. Today, the French Embassy is your home.

Vive la République, Vive la France!

And God Bless America !  

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).