Seventy years after Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy, President Barack Obama returned Friday to this hallowed battleground in what he called a "powerful manifestation of America's commitment to human freedom" that lives on in a new generation.
"Our commitment to liberty, our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and to the inherent dignity of every human being - that claim is written in the blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity," Obama said on a morning that dawned glorious and bright over the sacred site he called "democracy's beachhead."
|Obama spoke from the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where nearly 10,000 white marble tombstones sit on a bluff overlooking the site of the June 6, 1944, battle's most violent fighting at Omaha Beach. He described D-Day's violent scene in vivid terms, recalling that "by daybreak, blood soaked the water" and "thousands of rounds bit into flesh and sand."||Veterans of that fierce battle traveled long distances to the remote historic site and removed their hats as the audience delivered a long standing ovation when Obama recognized them.|
WNY Warplane in France to re-create it's 1944 role.
The next time the American military transport plane known as Whiskey 7 drops its paratroopers over Normandy, France, it will be for a commemoration instead of an invasion.
Seventy years after taking part in D-Day, the plane now housed at the National Warplane Museum in western New York is being prepared to recreate its role in the mission, when it dropped troops behind enemy lines under German fire.
|Click here to track Whiskey 7 live on its adventure across the globe!|
At the invitation of the French government, the restored Douglas C-47 will fly in for 70th-anniversary festivities and again release paratroopers over the original jump zone at Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
Pilot Naomi Wadsworth with a World War II-era Douglas C-47, housed at the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, N.Y. At the invitation of the French government, the airplane will return to France in June to recreate its role and drop paratroopers over the original drop zone in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. (AP Photos/Carolyn Thompson)
"There are very few of these planes still flying, and this plane was very significant on D-Day," said Erin Vitale, chairwoman of the Return to Normandy Project. "It dropped people that were some of the first into Sainte-Mere-Eglise and liberated that town."
Museum officials say the twin-prop Whiskey 7, so named because of its W-7 squadron marking, is one of several C-47s scheduled to be part of the D-Day anniversary, with jumpers made up of active and retired military personnel. But it is believed to be the only one flying from the United States.
The plane will fly to France by way of Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland and Germany, each leg 5 1/2 to 7 hours. Vitale compared it to trying to drive a 70-year-old car across the country without a breakdown. "It's going to be a huge challenge."
Among the 21 men it carried in 1944 was 20-year-old Leslie Palmer Cruise Jr., who also will make the return trip to France, his fifth, and be reunited with the craft - once it's on the ground. He is flying commercially from his Horsham, Pa., home outside Philadelphia.
"With me, it's almost, sometimes, like yesterday," Cruise, now 89, said by phone, recalling his first combat mission. "It really never leaves you."
Although the C-47 looks much the same today as it did on June 6, 1944, it looked very different when it arrived at the museum as a donation eight years ago. It had been converted to a corporate passenger plane.
"We had to take an executive interior out," said the museum's president, W. Austin Wadsworth. "It had a dry bar, lounge seats, a table with a nice map of the Bahamas in there. It was beautiful."
The museum's restoration of the historic plane to its original condition has been a roughly $180,000 project so far. Most of the money went toward two rebuilt engines and the rest to parts, equipment and service. The museum is trying to raise a total of $250,000 for the restoration and return to Normandy.
One upgrade it did allow was the installation of two GPS systems to keep the aircraft on course.
"The avionics in the airplane are modern. We're not going to go with what they had in 1943," Wadsworth said. "They would have had probably a radio beacon receiver and a lot of dead reckoning."
There is still no autopilot, said Wadsworth's daughter, Naomi, who will be among five pilots - one including her brother, Craig - taking turns at the controls on the way to Europe. That's fine with her, she said.
"It's history. It's real flying," she said. "With a lot of the computerized, mechanized things that you see in the airliners today, the airplane basically flies itself. ... This is not a situation where you can be asleep at the wheel. You really have to pay attention."
Said her father, also a pilot: "You don't just grab something and push it. There's a kind of feel to everything you do in these old birds. It doesn't have a soul obviously, but you don't just tell it what to do. You ask it."
Cruise still remembers being squashed between other paratroopers seated on pan seats as the plane left England's Cottesmore Airdrome.
He was weighed down with probably 100 pounds of gear, including an M-1 rifle that was carried in three pieces, 30-caliber rifle ammo, a first-aid pack, grenade, K-rations and his New Testament in his left pocket, over his heart.
"We could hear the louder roar as each plane following the leader accelerated down the runway and lifted into the air," he wrote in an account of the mission.
"Our turn came and the quivering craft gathered momentum along the path right behind the plane in front."
The airplane's engines were so loud he had to shout even to talk with the paratrooper next to him, he said, and the scenery through its square windows looked like shadows in the dark. Over the English Channel, a colonel pointed downward.
"In the partial darkness below we could make out silhouetted shapes of ships and there must have been thousands of them all sizes and kinds," Cruise wrote.
"If we had any doubts before about the certainty of the invasion, they were dispelled now."
And one of the paratroopers who was aboard the plane 70 years ago, also returns....... and jumps again at age 93
On a winding road, past a stand of sycamores outside his Ohio home, CBS News found Jim Martin, 70 years after his first trip to France.
Jim was one of the first Americans in combat in Europe.
Jim Martin/CBS News
Jim was a private in the 101st Airborne, one of the paratroopers dropped behind German lines in the hours before the D-Day landings.
"We wanted to get out of the plane quickly, because it was hitting the plane," he says. "Planes were blowing up, and we wanted to get the hell out of there."
They were inviting targets as they drifted toward the ground and the enemy.
Asked what was going through his mind as he slowly descended through the clouds into hostile territory, Jim says, "Fascination, because of all of this fire coming up towards us."
"It was absolutely fascinating to see all these various colored tracers coming up there," he says.
Their mission was to keep the Germans from reinforcing their troops on the dunes. Jim and his comrades landed right in the middle of those German reinforcements.
"That was a slaughter house," he recalls. "There was SS all over the place, and they just slaughtered us. My colonel was lost. My company commander was lost."
But what was supposed to be three days of fighting in Normandy went on for a month.
"That's the way we were trained, we accepted that," Jim says. "And no matter how many people are there against you, what the odds are doesn't matter. We're going to win."
Jim went from Normandy to fight in Holland, where he was wounded; from Holland to the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium; and from Belgium to Berchtesgaden, Germany -- Adolf Hitler's retreat in the Bavarian Alps.
Jim says he thought he was going to die "every day."
"You just have to accept it," he says. "If you're going to worry about dying all the time, you can't fight."
Jim is 93 now, one of the few left who can talk firsthand of a time when he says right was right and wrong was wrong, and everyone knew the difference.
And here's the best part: This week, went back to Normandy with Whiskey 7 and parachuted onto the same soil he touched seven decades ago.
SEE VIDEO OF HIS JUMP AT RIGHT
Bon voyage, Jim.
Below: President Obama's salute to the troops at Normandy