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'What you did here will never be forgotten'

Infantrymen in a Landing Craft Assault (LCA) going ashore from H.M.C.S. PRINCE HENRY off the Normandy beachhead, France, 6 June 1944. - Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons/author Dennis Sullivan)
Infantrymen in a Landing Craft Assault (LCA) going ashore from H.M.C.S. PRINCE HENRY off the Normandy beachhead, France, 6 June 1944.
— image credit: Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons/author Dennis Sullivan)

By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

COURSEULLES-SUR-MER, France - Well before the dignitaries descended Friday, Mark Wyatt and his father Chris strolled the sands of Juno Beach, reflecting on the terrible history of seven decades earlier.

The Canadian father-and-son pair came to remember and reflect on the spot where more than 350 other Canadian fathers lost their sons 70 years ago in the D-Day attack on France's Normandy coast.

"Being here, it is very evident from the scenery time has not eroded the things that happened here," said 21-year-old Wyatt, of Orillia, Ont., whose father is an Ontario Provincial Police superintendent.

Added the elder Wyatt: "I can't imagine what a hell on earth it was 70 years ago, but I'm glad I came."

By day's end, they were joined at Juno by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was on hand to address a crowd of thousands, including 99 Canadian D-Day veterans, joined by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.

The sweep of history collided with moments of profound personal reflection and real-time political drama during Harper's long sojourn along the Normandy coast to mark the anniversary.

"Today, we stand where Canadians bled on D-Day," the prime minister said.

"What you did here will never be forgotten," Harper told the veterans, men in or close to their 90s, who waited patiently under a baking sun for hours — resplendent in their medal-heavy uniforms — to hear Harper's words.

"I know I speak for all Canadians when I say a sincere and heartfelt, 'Thank you.'"

On June 6, 1944, Juno and four other beaches — code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold and Sword — were stormed by an invasion force of 130,000 U.S., British and Canadian soldiers. They came ashore to attack hundreds of Nazi troops in concrete fortified gun positions.

Earl Jewers, 92, was part of the second wave of troops to hit the beach one hour after the first assault. He and his fellow soldiers made it "eight miles" in land, he said.

"That was the furthest of anyone on D-Day."

Jewers hasn't been back since, and he said he's happy he finally got the chance to see Juno Beach again, with his daughter and grandson along this time.

"It has changed so much," Jewers said. "I don't know. You try to keep out ... memories."

Jewers's 67-year-old daughter, Joan Lewis, said she was proud to come here with her dad and his grandson. "It all seems to come together more — the reality."

The political realities of the current Ukraine crisis, which has spawned many parallels with the Second World War aggression of Nazi Germany, also permeated Friday's events.

In a much-anticipated moment, Harper joined Russian President Vladimir Putin at a leaders' luncheon after starting the day by participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Beny-sur-mer Canadian Cemetery, where more than 2,000 men, mostly Canadians, are buried.

Harper moved on to a luncheon hosted by French President Francois Hollande before the start of the major International Ceremony of Remembrance commemorating the attack.

Putin arrived as U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Queen Elizabeth and many other world leaders assembled for the day's events.

The White House said Obama and Putin shared "an informal conversation" on the sidelines of the luncheon. An American official said the brief chat lasted 10 to 15 minutes.

It was the first face-to-face meeting the two have had since the Ukraine crisis erupted.

Putin also spoke for 15 minutes with Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko on the sidelines of the ceremonies in Ouistreham, France. It was the first time the two men spoke since last month's election in Ukraine.

They discussed how Russia could recognize the Ukrainian elections, and a possible cease-fire, officials told The Associated Press.

Harper, who steered clear of Putin altogether, is off to Kyiv on Saturday for Poroshenko's swearing in.

France invited Putin to the D-Day anniversary, a decision Harper said he supports because it reflects the vital contribution the former Soviet Union made in helping Allied forces defeat Nazi Germany.

In his speech, Harper lauded the sacrifice of the 18,000 Canadian troops who contributed to the greatest seaborne invasion in history — one that was jeopardized by poor weather that neutralized Allied efforts to soften German defences.

"The soldiers had no choice but to charge well-fortified guns and their fully alerted crews, through the smoke, through the minefields, through the barbed wire, through the obstacles on the beaches, always under accurate and deafening mortar fire, and into the teeth of machine guns," he said.

"Only having run this deadly gauntlet could the survivors destroy the enemy strong points, and even then, only through savage hand-to-hand combat against some of the toughest soldiers in the world.

"That is how they took the beach," Harper said. "Here are some of the men who took it."

By late August 1944, Canada had lost more than 18,000 casualties, including 5,000 dead, in the Normandy campaign.

Today, Juno Beach is now a serene, eight-kilometre strip of summer resorts and villages scattered over flat land behind low beaches and a sea wall.

Harper ended the day with a slow stroll down to the beach, accompanied by D-Day veteran William Gunter, and bathed in the orange glow of a creeping Normandy dusk.

They stopped to talk, at one point, in roughly the same spot where 40-year-old Jean-Marc Renck had been frolicking in surf 10 hours earlier with his two-year-old son Abel.

Renck said his family has been coming from their home in faraway Strasbourg, France, each year for the last decade to honour D-Day and the Canadian, British and American troops who stormed the German forces.

Clutching Abel in his tattooed arms, Renck said the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers on this beach paved the way for the freedom and happiness his family now enjoys.

He had a simple message: "Merci, Canada."

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