CAEN, France—When John C. Raaen Jr. stormed Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, he was a 22-year-old captain leading his fellow U.S. Army Rangers into a hail of Nazi gunfire.
Today, he is a 92-year-old retired general who faces a different challenge: The generation of veterans who turned the tide of World War II with the D-Day landing and survived to tell their story is literally dying off.
"I haven't seen a single soul that I know here that had anything to do with the Rangers," Gen. Raaen said after walking the windswept shores of Normandy a day before the 70th anniversary of history's biggest amphibious offensive.
President Barack Obama and a host of other leaders will gather at the cemeteries across Normandy on Friday to commemorate D-Day and the thousands of fallen Allied troops who are buried here beneath rows of chalk-white headstones. For decades, D-Day commemorations have served as a potent reminder of the shared sacrifice of American, Canadian, British and other Western forces to free Europe from the clutches of totalitarianism. Not only was the battle pivotal in defeating Adolf Hitler, it turned the page on centuries of European bloodshed, leading the way to a new order.
American veterans, who took part in the landing on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, attend a ceremony there Thursday to mark the D-Day invasion's 70th anniversary. Getty Images
"D-Day marked the beginning of the end of two world wars and put the foundation together of our alliance as it is today," said Gen. Jean-Paul Paloméros, a former French Air Force chief of staff who now serves as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's supreme allied commander for transformation.