COLEVILLE SUR MER, FRANCE -- The freshly cut lawns of the Normandy American Military Cemetery near Omaha Beach hold the remains of 9,387 American servicemembers who died liberating Europe. Their remains are identified by white crosses, Stars of David, and Latin crosses. Their graves span 173 acres officially recognized as American soil.
But before there were markers or monuments here, there were men at war -- 150,000 of them, most from England, France, Canada, Australia and the United States, who formed the core of the forces that landed on the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944. One of 18 died trying to breach Adolf Hitler's Fortress Europa in those early stages of the first great battle of the last great war.
No guarantee of success, no easy way off the hundreds of Higgins boats that carried them from the ships to the beach, no certainty as to the number of German troops waiting for them on the beaches of France could stop the brave men of the Allied Forces who would embark on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's "Great Crusade" and carry out the largest invasion in the history of warfare.
Sixty years later, beaches Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold, and Sword are once again full of men and military units who are no strangers to these foreign shores.
"I come back here because I want to remember my friends," says Robert Murphy, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division who made his second combat jump into Normandy on June 6. After fighting in Africa and Italy, the bloodletting continued for Murphy in the small French town of St. Mare Eglese. His pilgrimage back to this battlefield is not his first. During the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Murphy again parachuted into Normandy as part of the memorial services then.
"So many men were killed here. So for me, it's a matter of showing respect and remembering the value of freedom."
The value of freedom is priceless to many in the crowds of French that have gathered here in Normandy to pay their respects.
Now remembered for their strong anti-war stance against the U.S. action in Iraq, all seems to have been forgotten and forgiven this week in these small Norman towns in France.
"Here they're special," says Murphy. "The little kids say 'Merci boku.' They thank you because their mother told them 'These are the men that liberated us and gave us our freedom,' " Murphy points to his chest and the medal he wears bearing his air assault wings with three stars symbolizing his three combat jumps and his three purple hearts. "These men right here."
Walking along the street in St. Mare Eglese, current 82nd Airborne Division soldiers in uniform are stopped by the townspeople, where they're offered a beer from the men or a kiss from the women.
"We're very grateful to your granddaddy," says one older Norman man sitting on a park bench with his dog. "We are very thankful to him for giving us our freedom from the Nazis."
That freedom came at a cost. From Normandy, the Allies would break through the German lines, push the Nazis back across the Rhine River, and forced them to surrender less than a year later.
At the end of the war, almost half a million U.S. service members were lost in the line of duty. Hundreds of thousands more were injured.
Veterans like Robert Murphy are those that NBC News Anchor Tom Brokaw hailed as "the Greatest Generation." They are the heroes remembered this week in Normandy. The current soldiers honor their sacrifice. The French are grateful for their freedom. And the rest of us pay humble respect to a sacrifice that cannot be measured in currency or commitment.