Return to Transcripts main page


Commemorating D-Day 70 Years Later; Obama Speaks at Normandy

Aired June 6, 2014 - 05:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Such a historic morning. Happening right now, world leaders gathering together on the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the day that really marked the beginning of the end of World War II, the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. President Obama set to speak in just a few minutes. It is really a very, very special morning. It's our big story this morning. We have a team of reporters bringing you all the events as they unfold.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Christine Romans. It's Friday, D- Day, June 6th, 5:00 a.m. in the East. It is beautiful there, where it was not beautiful 70 years ago, in the weather or otherwise. In just moments, president Obama will be speaking at Omaha beach, 1 of 17 heads of state in France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D- Day invasion. Thousands are there. Thousands have gathered in this historic seaside village to honor 150,000 soldiers who stormed those beaches to liberate Europe, to help defeat Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

White House Correspondent Michelle Kosinski is traveling with the president. She joins us live from (INAUDIBLE) France where all of this happened 70 years ago and where today beautiful, shining sun on people who are remembering a day that was a dark, stormy day that changed the course of history.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right, I know, and most of us know these images from movies nowadays, if we don't know someone who actually lived through that day. I mean, just the horror of it all. It was called Hell's Beach after the fact. So, it's nice that they get this beautiful, sunny day in France to commemorate this.

Behind us is the American cemetery, where more than 9,000 are buried. It's just as far as your eye can see these white, shining crosses. And in front of each of them today, a French flag and an American flag.

Further behind us is where President Obama is sitting with President Hollande of France. They are flanked by veterans from both countries. And I think that's been the most remarkable thing. I mean, first you get a sense of the quietness of the arrivals of these people with their family, the solemnity of the day, the memories that must be in their heads. And we're watching President Obama. Right now, their heads are bowed

in remembrance, but we can see him shaking hands with some of the men sitting around him, having a few words with them. And just watching the veterans arrive, many of them in wheelchairs, some of them walking with canes, advanced age for sure, but keep in mind, some of them were only 16 years old on d-day. So, they're just in their mid-80s or upper 80s today.

And to see the looks on their faces while the American anthem was played after the French anthem, and you just wonder, you know, what are they thinking today, the memories that they must have. Some of them look very proud, but we know so much emotion is wrapped up in this day as well.

And in a few minutes now, we'll hear President Obama speak, and he's going to be talking about those sacrifices, the lives lost, the risks taken, changed the course of human history, really, on this momentous day, in the name of human freedom, Christine.

ROMANS: Tell us a little bit about 17 heads of state there. They're remembering the past. At the same time, though, they've got a lot of business on hand for now, especially these frayed tensions with Russia, you know. And Russia was such an important part of World War II, 20 million Russians died. In fact, the sacrifices on the Russian side one of the reasons that this opening of a second front was made possible for this invasion of Europe.

KOSINSKI: Absolutely, and fighting the Nazis in the forests in winter. I mean, the sacrifices there were remarkable. And President Obama gave heed to that in the remarks that he's delivered on this foreign trip. As have other leaders.

So, it's interesting, because you had the G-7 meeting right before this commemoration that was supposed to be the G-8, before Russia was essentially kicked out of the club. The crisis in Ukraine and Russia's behavior most recently overshadowed that meeting. I mean, that was the dominant topic of discussion what to do about Russian aggression.

Then, you had this commemoration where Russia is very much a part of it. So, world leaders didn't want that crisis involving Russia now to overshadow the commemoration of this day.

So, they really spoke about the appropriateness of Russia being present for this, being able to kind of separate those two out. You know, on the one hand, you have the G-7 and events of today. On the other hand, you have a commemoration and Russia's actions 70 years ago, much, much different situation, obviously.

But you also have these meetings with world leaders. Russia met with France, England and Germany one on one, but not with the United States. President Obama met with France and England, but he did say maybe he would come into contact with Vladimir Putin here. There's a world leaders lunch this afternoon. Sure, they might have a sort of meet-and-greet. But President Obama made it clear to reporters yesterday that if they did exchange words, that President Obama would be sure to carry the message that he's been sending throughout the crisis in Ukraine, that Russia needs to start de-escalating the situation. I mean, we've been hearing that phrase now for months, and that Russia's behavior in many ways continues to be unacceptable, Christine.

ROMANS: Looks like Francois Hollande, the president of France, just beginning to speak right now.

Thank you, Michelle Kosinski, for that. We'll let you get back to listening to the event.

BERMAN: You know, what's interesting, listening to the French president speak and the American president sitting right there. A moment ago they were sitting there with their heads bowed, surrounded by the soldiers, the men who landed on D-Day.

And it's not often, I think, that you see world leaders like Presidents Obama and Hollande overwhelmed, but they almost did look overwhelmed by the sacrifice of the men around them. These world leaders seem small in comparison to the men who are sitting there --

ROMANS: You're right.

BERMAN: -- because of the sacrifice that they all had made. Such an interesting, interesting vision.

And again, president Obama will be speaking in just a few minutes. The world leaders right now are gathered at Omaha Beach. That was one of five of the key landing sites during the D-Day invasion. Sword Beach was another, one of the beaches stained by blood that day 70 years ago this morning.

That's where we find Christiane Amanpour on this beautiful day, as the world looks back 70 years, but also in some ways, Christiane, looks forward as well.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. It is hard to imagine this beauty today compared with the devastation 70 years ago, not just the sun compared to the gale force and terrible weather of June 6, 1944. The fact that this massive (INAUDIBLE), the greatest, most ambitious military venture ever assembled crept through a 36-hour window of weather to do what they did. And who knows what would have happened if General Eisenhower hadn't banked everything on the meteorological report from the Royal Air Force.

And then those British forces that were landed here at Sword Beach, not just on -- not just disembarking on the beaches but also previously their comrades had come down by plane, and their task was to grab the bridges, to prevent the Germans to be able to come to these Normandy bridges and also to be able to secure their ability to bring their material, their weaponry and to support what was not just one day on d-day but what ended up being many, many weeks of the battle of Normandy -- 130,000 forces landed on D-Day, but by the end of July that year, 1944, 1.5 million allied forces had landed. And by the end of the battle of Normandy, 600,000 people would have been killed, would have been wounded, were missing.

On D-Day itself, 10,000 casualties on the first day of this war. It is unparalleled in modern human history. And it was so devastating that even the military sensors could not put out the video and the filming which they had done on that day for years and years and years.

And to be truthful, it was really only until "Saving Private Ryan" that came out, that film by Steven Spielberg in 1998, that you really saw the carnage of what happened on these beaches this day in 1944.

So, yes, these leaders are paying tribute to this great, great generation, all men, all children, virtually, teenagers and in their young 20s, who gave everything so that Europe could be free.

And the French are very, very aware, and they have said that this day is to say thank you and to pay tribute to those allies who not just liberated occupied France but then went on to liberate Europe, and how different it would have been had this day not have happened and how different, obviously, it would have been had they not been victorious.

And the speeches that General Eisenhower gave and Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the French president in exile, General De Gaulle, gave on that day to this day really make your hair stand up on end. They were so bold, so brave, they risked everything to make this work.

And you know, these presidents are now paying tribute to those who have fallen, and because of whom we now can walk in freedom. So, it's massive, really.

BERMAN: The eyes of the world are upon you is what President Eisenhower said. And I think 70 years later, the eyes of the world still upon the brave men who fought there.

Christiane Amanpour at sword beach, thank you so much.

ROMANS: Thousands of soldiers, of course, paid the ultimate price, as Christiane said, during the Normandy invasion. Today, France's Gold Beach is a pristine destination with its white sands, the blue-green waters. 70 years ago, it was stained by the blood of hundreds of allied soldiers.

Jim Bittermann is near the shores of Gold Beach right now in France.

And just remarkable to be there, Jim, on any day is to be overwhelmed by the significance of where you are on the map and what happened there, but today, 70 years, it's even more so.

JIM BETTERMANN, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, exactly, that's right, Christine. In fact, we're about halfway along these beaches, 60 miles of beaches where the landings took place, and here at Aromange, this is the site of the artificial harbor that was built. Just to give you an idea of the kind of thing they had to plan for, they weren't going to take after the disasters of 1942, they were not going to take any of the harbors, the natural harbors that they could have along the coast. They were worried about doing that.

So, they brought these artificial harbors like this one here, created out of gigantic, floating concrete caissons which were floated across the channel from England and were sunk here and from which they made a break water and then were able to make a pier that would bring in all the vehicles and what not that they needed to. Just in the first five days, they brought in 55,000 vehicles. And we see today on the beach here some of those vehicles, probably, a lot of these are war surplus vehicles that the reconstructors here and the collectors have carefully restored, and they've brought them out today for this big day.

As the tide has gone out here -- we've seen the tide come in on these vehicles. They've been just an invasion of all these reconstructed vehicles and the renovated vehicles, and it's quite a sight here. There's been a couple ceremonies here as well this morning. We had something with the dutch king and queen. They were here. And there are ceremonies all over the place having competing ceremonies, as it were -- John and Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Jim Bittermann, thanks so much this morning.

BERMAN: Interesting, those crowded beaches, and think that that is, you know, small, tiny, puny compared to what was going on on those beaches 70 years ago.

I want to bring in noted historian Ken Davis. He joins us right now here in studio. He's the author of the book, "Don't Know Much About History", among other great works.

You know, Ken, it's interesting. American presidents have been commemorating the D-Day invasion, really since Ronald Reagan, some 30 years ago, but so different for Reagan. He was paying respects really to people of his own age. As time passes, our direct connection to these men dwindles.

KEN DAVIS, HISTORIAN: Absolutely. I'm reminded that Bill Clinton, when he went, spoke to the noted British historian John Keegan and had to really get a fill-in on what had happened there, of course. We are removed from it. War slips into that black hole that we unfortunately call American history.

This event was part of my father's, my parents' generation. I grew up with it from the longest day through "Saving Private Ryan," it's been part of our legend, the mythology of war stories we tell.

But one of the real problems, I think, in talking about World War II and history is that we have lost the sense of personal involvement that was so true for Americans during that time. War was in every household during World War II. We're very much removed from it now.

So, this has receded into the past. It's getting a little bit far away, but we cannot forget what these things really meant. I'm just reminded also of Memorial Day having just passed, the words of Lincoln, that these dead shall not have died in vain. That's really what we're thinking about today. ROMANS: When we talk about what these men did, well, first of all,

what the war planners did, this massive after armada, something that had never been attempted before --

BERMAN: Or since.

ROMANS: Or since. The 36-hour window where President Eisenhower had one piece of weather intelligence to go on. Talk about how remarkable that they pulled this thing off. I can't believe this pulled this off.

DAVIS: It is extraordinary when you look back at all the planning and all of the deceptions that had to go on. Of course, there was tremendous fear that they knew that German spies were all over England. They were actually using some of them that they had turned, double agents, to deceive and create the impression that the invasion would happen somewhere else.

There were even inflatable tanks created. So, the whole scope of this planning was extraordinary.

Just the numbers are extraordinary. And I hate to talk about history in terms of numbers because it's real stories of real people, as we're seeing in these ceremonies, but the numbers are astonishing -- 5,000 ships, hundreds of thousands of men. The paratroopers, we've barely even spoken about that, that the men were being dropped at night behind enemy lines --

ROMANS: In the wrong place.

DAVIS: Often in the wrong place. Dummy paratroopers used as a decoy in other places. So, the planning was extraordinary. There were also only these moments that this could happen, because not only the weather had to be good, the tides had to be right.

This day was perfect because there was also a full moon that night. So, all of these things play into this incredible, incredibly complicated scenario that plays out.

BERMAN: And you talk about how history often turns into mythology, but in some ways, what makes D-Day, what makes World War II so enormous is that it shaped what America became and is today.

DAVIS: Absolutely. You know, we talk about the sacrifice of the soldiers, and that's all part of it, but one of the things, and this goes into the numbers of ships and the planes and all that, is that America had become what FDR, Franklin D. Roosevelt, called the arsenal of democracy, the extraordinary ability to produce the planes, the warships, the tanks, all of the material of war that went into this.

We also have to bring up the fact that for my generation growing up, we did not hear about the Soviets' involvement in World War II. They weren't the allies anymore, they were the enemy.

So, we didn't really understand the tremendous sacrifice, obviously, Americans lost, British lost, all the allies lost. We're talking about tens of thousands of Americans and British. There were tens of millions of Soviets and Russians, civilians and soldiers. And that's part of the story that's so fascinating, to have Putin here today in this ceremony, which is somewhat unusual and certainly extraordinary.

BERMAN: And I think it's safe to say it still drives the Russian psyche as well even today, 70 years later.

Stick around, Kenneth Davis.


ROMANS: Thank you.

BERMAN: We're waiting for the president to speak in a few minutes.

Ahead, we'll have more of our continuing coverage of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.


ROMANS: Let's get right to the president speaking in Normandy, France.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If prayer were made of sound, the skies over England that night would have deafened the world.

Captains paced their decks. Pilots tapped their gauges. Commanders pored over maps, fully aware that for all the months of meticulous planning, everything could go wrong -- the winds, the tides, the element of surprise - and above all, the audacious bet that what waited on the other side of the Channel would compel men not to shrink away, but to charge ahead.

Fresh-faced GIs rubbed trinkets, kissed pictures of sweethearts, checked and re-checked their equipment. "God," asked one, "Give me guts."

And in the pre-dawn hours, planes rumbled down runways; gliders and paratroopers slipped through the sky; giant screws began to turn on an armada that looked like more ships than sea. And more than 150,000 souls set off towards this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but the course of human history.

President Hollande, distinguished guests, I am honored to return here today to pay tribute to the men and women of a generation who defied every danger: among them, our veterans of D-day. Gentlemen, we are truly humbled by your presence today.


Just last week, I received a letter from a French citizen. "Dear Mr. President and the American people," he wrote, "We are honored to welcome you, to thank you again for all the pain and efforts of the American people and others in our common struggle for freedom."

Today, we say the same to the people of France. Thank you, especially, for the generosity you've shown the Americans who've come here over the generations -- to these beaches, and to this sacred place of rest for 9,387 Americans. At the end of the war, when our ships set off for America filled with our fallen, tens of thousands of liberated Europeans turned out to say farewell.

And they pledged to take care of the more than 60,000 Americans who would remain in cemeteries on this continent "as if," in the words of one man, "We take care of the fallen as if their tombs were our children's." And the people of France, you have kept your word, like the true friends you are. We are forever grateful.


Here, we don't just commemorate victory, as proud of that victory as we are; we don't just honor sacrifice, as grateful as the world is -- we come to remember why America and our allies gave so much for the survival of liberty at its moment of maximum peril. And we come to tell the story of the men and women who did it, so that it remains seared into the memory of the future world. We tell this story for the old soldiers who pull themselves a little straighter today to salute brothers who never made it home. For the daughter who clutches a faded photo of her father, forever young. For the child who runs his fingers over colorful ribbons he knows signify something of great consequence -- even if he doesn't yet know why. We tell this story to bear what witness we can to what happened when the boys from America reached Omaha Beach.

By daybreak, blood soaked the water, bombs broke the sky. Thousands of paratroopers had dropped into the wrong landing sites; thousands of rounds bit into flesh and sand. Entire companies' worth of men fell in minutes. "Hell's Beach" had earned its name.

By 8:30 a.m., General Omar Bradley expected our troops to be a mile inland. "Six hours after the landings," he wrote, "we held only ten yards of beach." In our age of instant commentary, the invasion would have been swiftly and roundly declared, as it was by one officer, "a debacle."

But such a race to judgment does not take into account the courage of free men. "Success may not come with rushing speed," President Roosevelt would say that night, "But we shall return again and again."

Paratroopers fought through the countryside to find one another. Rangers pulled themselves over those cliffs to silence Nazi guns. To the west, Americans took Utah Beach with relative ease. To the east, the British tore through the coast, fuelled by the fury of five years of bombs over London, and a solemn vow to "fight them on the beaches." The Canadians, whose shores had not been touched by war, drove far into France. And here, at Omaha, troops who finally made it to the seawall used it as shelter - where a general barked, "If you're Rangers -- lead the way."

By the end of that longest day, this beach had been fought, lost, refought and won -- a piece of Europe once again liberated and free. Hitler's Wall was breached, letting loose Patton's Army to pour into France.

Within a week, the world's bloodiest beach had become the world's busiest port. Within a month, one million Allied troops thundered through Normandy into Europe, and as our armies marched across the continent, one pilot said it looked as if the very crust of the Earth had shaken loose."

The Arc de Triomphe lit up for the first time in years, and Paris was punctuated by shouts of "Vive la France" and "Vive les Etats Unis!"


Of course, even as we gather here at Normandy, we remember that freedom's victory was also made possible by so many others who wore America's uniform. Two years before he commanded armies here, Eisenhower's troops sliced through Northern Africa. Three times before D-day, our GIs stormed the beaches at Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio. Divisions like the Fighting 36th brawled their way through Italy, fighting through the mud for months, marching through towns past waving children before opening the gates to Rome.

As the "dogfaces" marched to victory in Europe, the Devil Dogs -- the Marines -- clawed their way from island to island in the Pacific, in some of the war's fiercest fighting. And back home, an army of women, including my grandmother, rolled up their sleeves to help build a mighty arsenal of democracy.

But it was here, on these shores, that the tide was turned in that common struggle for freedom. What more powerful manifestation of America's commitment to human freedom than the sight of wave after wave after wave of young men boarding those boats to liberate people they'd never met?

We say it now as if it couldn't be any other way. But in the annals of history, the world had never seen anything like it. When the war was won, we claimed no spoils of victory - we helped Europe rebuild. We claimed no land other than the earth where we bury those who gave their lives under our flag, and where we station those who still serve under it. But America's claim -- our commitment to liberty; our claim to equality; our claim to freedom; to the inherent dignity of every human being, that claim is written in blood on these beaches, and it will endure for eternity.

Omaha - Normandy - this was democracy's beachhead. And our victory in that war decided not just a century, but shaped the security and well- being of all posterity. We worked to turn old adversaries into new allies. We built new prosperity. We stood once more with the people of this continent through a long twilight struggle until finally, a wall tumbled down, and an Iron Curtain, too. From Western Europe to East; from South America to Southeast Asia; 70 years of democratic movements spread. Nations that once knew only the blinders of fear began to taste the blessings of freedom.

None of that would not have happened without the men who were willing to lay down their lives for people they'd never met, and ideals they couldn't live without.