OMAHA BEACH, France: US President Joe Biden made an impassioned call for the defense of freedom and democracy at the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy on Thursday, urging Western powers to stay the course with Ukraine and not surrender to Russian tyranny.

At a joint ceremony with French President Emmanuel Macron and US veterans at the Normandy American Cemetery, Biden said it was “simply unthinkable” to surrender to Russian aggression and he promised no let-up in support for Ukraine.

He urged Western and NATO allies to recapture the spirit of D-Day and work together at a time when he said democracy was under greater threat than at any time since the end of World War Two.

“Isolationism was not the answer 80 years ago and is not the answer today,” Biden said in his speech.

On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers invaded France by sea and air to drive out the forces of Nazi Germany, coming ashore at five beaches codenamed Omaha, Juno, Sword, Utah and Gold or dropping from the sky.

With the numbers of veterans fast dwindling — many are aged 100 or more — this is likely to be the last major ceremony in Normandy honoring them in their presence.

Biden said it was the highest honor to salute the assembled US veterans, some huddled in warm blankets, turning to tell them: “God love ya.”

“The men who fought here became heroes,” he said. “They knew beyond any doubt there are things that are worth fighting and dying for.”

Veterans, around 200 of whom were present, have been the stars of commemorations throughout the week.

As veterans arrived at an international commemoration at Omaha Beach on Thursday, world leaders applauded each of them as they were pushed past them on wheelchairs, some of them smiling proudly and saluting.

Some leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, kneeled to be at the same level as the veterans in wheelchairs as they exchanged a few words.

UKRAINE FEARS

With war raging in Ukraine on Europe’s borders, the anniversary of this turning point in World War Two carries special resonance. It also takes place in a year of many elections, including for the European Parliament this week and in the US in November.

Critics fear former President Donald Trump, who will go head-to-head with Biden in the election, would reduce US support for Ukraine.

Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska received an ovation when they arrived at the Omaha Beach ceremony as World War Two bombers flew overhead. Zelensky hugged Macron and talked with many of the heads of state present.

“Allies defended Europe’s freedom then, and Ukrainians do so now. Unity prevailed then, and true unity can prevail today,” Zelensky said on the social media platform X.

Macron echoed Biden’s comments, also making a link between Ukraine and D-Day.

“Thank you to the Ukrainian people for their courage, for their love of freedom. We are here and we will not weaken,” Macron said at Omaha beach to applause from other world leaders.

Speaking at a British commemoration in Ver-sur-Mer earlier in the day, Britain’s King Charles, in full military uniform, also urged greater international collaboration to fight tyranny.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and many others also took part in the day of tributes.

But Russia, which invaded Ukraine in 2022, touching off Europe’s biggest armed conflict since World War Two, was not invited. In a speech, however, Macron paid tribute to the contribution of the Red Army and soldiers across the Soviet Union to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Leaders were set to adopt a declaration saying democracy was once more under threat in Europe and promising to defend freedom and democracy, two sources said.

Thousands of service personnel from Britain, the United States, Canada and other nations were killed, as well as their German foes and thousands of civilians across Normandy.

At the US ceremony in Colleville-sur-Mer, where row after row of white marble crosses — some with names, some unmarked — show the toll the invasion, Macron awarded the Legion d’Honneur to US veterans, many sporting caps that read “WWII veteran.”

“You are back here today at home, if I may say,” Macron told the 180 American World War Two veterans, including 33 D-Day veterans, saying France would not forget their sacrifice.

Moving letters from some of them were read out at the British ceremony.

“I want to pay my respects to those who didn’t make it. May they rest in peace,” veteran Joe Mines said, in words read by actor Martin Freeman. “I was 19 when I landed, but I was still a boy…and I didn’t have any idea of war and killing.”

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