The men who stormed Normandy 79 years ago saved democracy "and it is all of our duty to defend with undimmed vigor the principles for which the Allies fought," Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said today.
Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at the service at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France. More than 9,000 service members are buried at the cemetery located just above Omaha Beach.
The secretary and general spoke directly to some of the veterans who stormed the beach on June 6, 1944 — now in their late 90s or over 100 years old. "To the veterans of World War II: We salute you," Austin said. "You saved the world. We must merely defend it."
The invasion was the greatest military operation of World War II landing 150,000 men from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, France and other nations on the shores of Normandy.
There were more than 6,000 ships in the armada with more than 14,000 aircraft providing cover that fateful day. They came to set free a suffering humanity from the oppression and brutality of Adolf Hitler.
"It's easy to forget how desperate the battle was, how loud the clash was, how many things could have gone wrong, and how many things did go wrong, Austin said. "But, on D-Day, courage won out over terror, daring over cruelty, and liberty won out over tyranny."
Normandy was the demonstration of the strength of a free people, the secretary said. "Free soldiers will fight more bravely than the armies of tyrants," he said.
"The men who landed here on D-Day did just that. And they wrote themselves into the pages of history as a grand refutation of Hitler's bile. D-Day reminds us that there is no force multiplier stronger than a just cause."
Democracy is still a just cause, and it is still worth defending, Austin said. "We still seek a world where aggression is a sin, where human rights are sacred, where those who preach hatred, tyranny and genocide are cast out," he said. "We seek a world where civilians are safe from the ravages of war. Where sovereignty and territorial integrity are respected. And we seek a world where all states and all peoples can pursue their own destinies in freedom."
The men and women who served and sacrificed during World War II laid the foundation for the open world of rules and rights enjoyed today, the secretary said. "Today's rules-based international order is the legacy of those who won the bloodiest war in history," he said.
Milley pointed to the graves in the cemetery. "These Americans and so many others sacrificed and gave their lives in the crucible of combat," he said. "Thousands of miles from their birthplaces, they gave their lives so that others they didn't even know would remain free. They gave their lives for us, so that you and I would live free. Peace and freedom are never guaranteed. They must be guarded and cherished and sometimes fought for and paid in blood."
Democracy still requires work and determination and effort, Austin said. "For most of us, the demands of democratic citizenship are far less stern than they were in 1944, but we must meet today's challenges with our full strength — soldier and civilian alike," he said. "If the troops of the world's democracies could risk their lives for freedom, then, surely the citizens of the world's democracies can risk our comfort for freedom now."
The secretary spoke directly to the Russian assault on democracy in Ukraine. "On a recent trip to a U.S. training post in a free Germany, I met brave young men and women from Ukraine who were learning how to fight for their lives and for their country, and, today, I am more determined than ever to stand by them for as long as it takes," he said.
Democracy is under attack, and there are those who see the rule of strongmen as the future. They see democracies as weak and divided, the secretary said.
"They are wrong," he stated. "And every D-Day, citizen by citizen, we remember that we each have the ability — and the responsibility — to fight for the principles that drove the Allied armies forward."
Milley reiterated the secretary's point. "Now it is up to us, the living to ensure that these exceptional men ... who fell on the sands did not die in vain," he said. "Each of us has a duty, a duty to carry forward this experiment in democracy."
Austin quoted from Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's message to the troops. "The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you." Eisenhower was the commander of the D-Day invasion, dubbed Operation Overlord.
Austin said the eyes of the world still shine in admiration on the heroes of D-Day. But the eyes of the world "are upon us, as well, and we will not let the torch of freedom go out," he said.
Spotlight: Commemorating World War II