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King Charles III honors a generation that fought, died and waited for freedom

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VER-SUR-MER, France (AP) — King Charles III came to northern France on Thursday to honor the 22,442 British troops who died in the Battle of Normandy.

He also came to honor a generation.

A generation that sacrificed and fought and died and waited through five long years of war, then sent its youngest and bravest to claw their way onto the Normandy beaches and battle through machine-gun fire and artillery blasts to begin the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe on June 6, 1944 — D-Day.

It is also a generation that is quickly passing into history, with the youngest D-Day veterans now nearing their 100th birthdays. That is a reality the king knows firsthand after losing his mother and father, both World War II veterans, over the last three years.

So Charles on Thursday said thank you, perhaps for the last time, to old soldiers and their missing comrades during ceremonies at the British Normandy Memorial overlooking the beaches where U.K. soldiers landed 80 years ago.

While the number of living veterans is dwindling, “our obligation to remember what they stood for and what they achieved for us all can never diminish,” Charles said, wearing the uniform of field marshal in the British Army.

“Eighty years ago on D-Day, the 6th of June 1944, our nation — and those which stood alongside it — faced what my grandfather, King George VI, described as the supreme test,” he said. “How fortunate we were, and the entire free world, that a generation of men and women in the United Kingdom and other allied nations did not flinch when the moment came to face that test.”

Forty-one of those veterans, medals pinned to their blazers, were guests of honor Thursday, sitting in the shadow of sandstone columns bearing the names of all those who died under British command in the Battle of Normandy. Four told their stories, including Joe Mines, who as a 19-year-old soldier was tasked with clearing mines from the nearby beaches on D-Day.

“I wasn’t a man, I was a boy, and I didn’t have any idea of war and killing,” Mines said in a letter read by actor Martin Freeman. “I was lucky. Yeah, I had lots and lots of luck.”

“So why would I come back? Well, this is the last and only opportunity for me,” Mines said. “The last there will ever be. And it’s because of the lads. I want to pay my respects to those who didn’t make it. May they rest in peace.”

Charles, 75, shrugged off his own recent cancer diagnosis to attend the ceremony for British veterans, even though he chose to skip the larger international ceremony a few miles away. Prince William, the heir to the throne, stood in for the king at that event near Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, joining heads of state and veterans from around the world to mark the anniversary.

The king is slowly returning to public-facing duties after being sidelined for three months following his diagnosis. While doctors are encouraged by his progress, Charles is still receiving treatment and his schedule will be adjusted as needed to protect his recovery, Buckingham Palace said last month.

With a limited schedule, it’s no surprise he chose to focus on the sacrifices of British soldiers.

U.K. monarchs have taken a leading role in honoring the nation’s war dead, ever since Charles’ great-grandfather King George V presided over the burial of an unknown soldier of the First World War at Westminster Abbey in 1920.

As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the king is a symbol of the nation and a unifying force for the military who is above party politics.

Charles, who spent five years in the Royal Navy, also has a deep personal connection to the World War II generation. His father, Prince Philip, served in the navy throughout the war, and his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, trained as a military driver and mechanic during the final months of the conflict. Queen Camilla’s father served in the army and was twice awarded the military cross, Britain’s third-highest military honor.

“Those men and women who took part in D-Day, they weren’t fighting for the government of the day, they were fighting for the Crown,” said Michael Cole, a former BBC royal correspondent who first covered Charles more than 50 years ago.

“The troops swear their loyalty to the king. That’s how it happens. And that’s how it works in this country. So it’s very, very important that the king takes part” in the D-Day services, Cole said.

The D-Day landings had been a dream of Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, ever since the United States entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

They finally became a reality on June 6, 1944, when almost 160,000 Allied troops from the U.S., Britain, Canada and nine other countries landed in Normandy. At least 4,414 men were killed and another 5,900 were listed as missing or wounded as Allied forces broke through the Nazis’ heavily fortified “Atlantic Wall” to secure a foothold in Northern Europe.

By the end of August, more than 2 million men had crossed the English Channel, starting the march to Berlin that ended with Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945.

The king and French President Emmanuel Macron led dignitaries in laying wreaths at the British Normandy Memorial, which opened on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019.

The memorial is near the town of Ver-sur-Mer overlooking Gold Beach, one of three beaches where British troops came ashore on D-Day. Almost 62,000 British troops landed that day, or 40% of the total invasion force.

For the 80th anniversary events, 1,475 larger-than-life black silhouettes have been installed around the memorial to represent the British troops who died on D-Day itself.

Thursday’s commemoration was replete with moments both somber and uplifting.

Many in the audience reached for tissues when Arthur Oborne, 100, recalled being shot in the lung three days after arriving on Gold Beach. Osborne seemed nervous at first, but his voice strengthened as he told how his life was saved by his friend Walter Gummerson, who was killed the next day along with the rest of their unit.

“I wish I could tell him that I have never taken his sacrifice for granted and will always remember him and our friends,″ he said. “So, Gummy, thank you, my old friend.”

Charles seemed to fit right in with the sea of uniforms of all the services. His message though, was all about the veterans, the once young but now old men and women who bought the Western Allies their freedom.

Words did not fail him.

“On the beaches of Normandy, in the seas beyond and in the skies overhead, our Armed Forces carried out their duty with a humbling sense of resolve and determination: qualities so characteristic of that remarkable wartime generation,” Charles said.

“Very many of them never came home. They lost their lives on the D-Day landing grounds or in the many battles that followed. It is with the most profound sense of gratitude that we remember them.”

By DANICA KIRKA
Associated Press

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