NEW YORK Three helicopters flew over the Statue of Liberty on Friday, showering France's gift to the United States with 1 million red rose petals during a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Just prior to the petal drop, students unfurled two giant flags at the base of the statue — one American, one French. A band then played both countries' national anthems and another banner was held up reading "The French Will Never Forget." Hundreds of World War II veterans, history buffs and active duty military members attended.
The statue was a gift from France to the U.S. in the 19th century and sits in New York Harbor as one of the nation's greatest symbols. The event marked the anniversary of the landings of Allied troops in Normandy, the largest amphibious invasion in history and a turning point in the war.
Among those participating in the ceremony, held under a brilliant blue sky and bright sunlight, was World War II veteran Henry Sanchez, 87, of Bayonne, New Jersey.
He was 17 years old on D-Day serving in the Navy on one of the boats that dropped off the soldiers in the shallow waters offshore. He recalled that gunshots and cannons rang around him all morning.
"I will never forget it — how could I? So many men gave up so much. It's fabulous that they are being remembered this way," he said.
A cheer went up from the crowd as the helicopters, the Manhattan skyline behind them, slowly fluttered toward the statue, and opened their doors. The red petals slowly fluttered to earth, some landing on the statue itself, others in the harbor and some on the onlookers below.
Morton Wernick, 92, of Manhattan, who was awarded the French Legion of Honor at West Point last month, said he was on Utah Beach on D-Day.
"This is a wonderful day. It means a lot to have it remembered like this," said Wernick, who was carrying the "Eisenhower" Army jacket that he wore that day 70 years ago.
Sailors from the French military frigate the Lafayette, moored near the statue also participated, while a New York Fire Department boat fired streams of water colored red, white and blue.
"I choke up just thinking about it," said Arthur Imperatore, 88, who also served in World War II but did not participate in the invasion of Normandy. "I grew up with so many guys who didn't come back."
Some of those who watched the ceremony were tourists who simply were taking in one of New York's top attractions, unaware that they were there in time for the military remembrance.
"I'm so glad we saw this. It was really moving," said Lynett McKinney, 50, on vacation from Salt Lake City, Utah. "It was very special."