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Costs of World War II, Ukraine war fuse as Allies remember D-Day without Russia

UTAH BEACH, France — As the sun sets on the D-Day generation, it will rise again Thursday over the Normandy beaches where the waves long ago washed away the blood and boot-steps of its soldiers, but where their exploits that helped end Adolf Hitler’s tyranny are being remembered by the next generations, seeing war again in Europe, in Ukraine.

Ever-dwindling numbers of World War II veterans who have pilgrimaged back to France, and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that has dashed hopes that lives and cities wouldn’t again be laid to waste in Europe, are making the always poignant anniversaries of the June 6, 1944, Allied landings even more so 80 years on.

As now-centenarian veterans revisit old memories and fallen comrades buried in Normandy graves, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s presence at D-Day commemorations with world leaders — including U.S. President Joe Biden — who are supporting his country’s fight against Russia’s invasion will inevitably fuse together World War II’s awful past with the fraught present on Thursday.

The break of dawn almost eight decades exactly after Allied troops waded ashore under hails of gunfire on five code-named beaches — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword — will kick off a day of remembrance by Allied nations now standing together again behind Ukraine — and with World War II ally Russia not invited by host France. It cited Russia’s “war of aggression against Ukraine that has intensified in recent weeks” for the snub.

With the dead and wounded on both sides in Ukraine estimated in the hundreds of thousands, commemorations for the more than 4,400 Allied dead on D-Day and many tens of thousands more, including French civilians, killed in the ensuing Battle of Normandy are tinged with concerns that World War II lessons are being lost.

“There are things worth fighting for,” said World War II veteran Walter Stitt, who fought in tanks and turns 100 in July, as he visited Omaha Beach this week. “Although I wish there was another way to do it than to try to kill each other.”

“We’ll learn one of these days, but I won’t be around for that,” he said.

Conscious of the inevitability that major D-Day anniversaries will soon take place without World War II veterans, huge throngs of aficionados in uniforms and riding vehicles of the time, and tourists soaking up the spectacle, have flooded Normandy for the 80th anniversary.

The fair-like atmosphere fueled by World War II-era jeeps and trucks tearing down hedge-rowed lanes so deadly for Allied troops who fought dug-in German defenders, and of reenactors playing at war on sands where D-Day soldiers fell, leave open the question of what meaning anniversaries will have once the veterans are gone.

But at the 80th, they’re the VIPs of commemorations across the Normandy coast where the largest-ever land, sea and air armada punctured Hitler’s defenses in Western Europe and helped precipitate his downfall 11 months later.

Those who traveled to Normandy include women who were among the millions who built bombers, tanks and other weaponry and played other vital World War II roles that were long overshadowed by the combat exploits of men.

“We weren’t doing it for honors and awards. We were doing it to save our country. And we ended up helping save the world,” said 98-year-old Anna Mae Krier, who worked as a riveter building B-17 and B-29 bombers.

Feted wherever they go in wheelchairs and walking with canes, veterans are using their voices to repeat their message they hope will live eternal: Never forget.

“To know the amount of people who were killed here, just amazing,” 98-year-old Allan Chatwin, who served with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, said as he visited Omaha, the deadliest of the Allied beaches on D-Day.

He quickly added: “I don’t know that amazing is the word.”

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