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World prepares to salute D-Day heroes

The flags are up, the medals have been polished and the veterans have begun to arrive. Normandy is ready to deliver an emotional salute to the heroes of D-Day.

CAEN, France: The flags are up, the medals have been polished and the veterans have begun to arrive. Normandy is ready to deliver an emotional salute to the heroes of D-Day.

Hundreds of the men who took part in the decisive day of World War II began gathering on Wednesday along France's northern coastline ahead of the 70th anniversary of The Longest Day.

For all but a few of them, it will be a final pilgrimage to the beaches of Normandy.

For Charles Wilson, it is his first in the seven decades since he drove a tank onto Utah beach on June 6, 1944.

"I had to fall on my knees down on the beach," the resident of Carlisle, Kentucky told AFP. "I was so humbled."

Wilson would have loved to have come earlier but could never afford the trip. So the former school teacher jumped at the chance of an expenses-paid trip involving the opportunity to talk about his experiences to local children.

"I had a part (in D-Day) and I am so proud of this part," he said. "But I never decided to go. They took me out of school and made me go."

The playing down of their contribution to history seems to be a universal characteristic amongst D-Day vets.

But as they near the end of their lives, many seem more willing than ever to speak frankly of the terror they experienced on the day itself.

"I was as terrified as everybody else. Scared stiff," 98-year-old British veteran Ken Scott told AFP. "There was nowhere to hide."

For many, D-Day began with a leap into pitch darkness out of planes flying so low there was barely enough time for their parachutes to open before they thumped into the sandy soil of northern France.

Thousands more splashed onto beaches only to watch their closest friends cut down before them by German machine gun fire.

The youngest of the veterans are now approaching their 90th birthdays and few of them will be around for the 80th anniversary of the biggest amphibious assault in human history.

Sitting in a hotel reception in Caen, Canadian Roland Armitage, 89, noted without emotion how he had helped destroy the town in the weeks after D-Day.

"We shelled this place. We destroyed it," he said. "But I'm no student of war. I'm a student of the good times.

"I'm here for the joy of it. I'm not going to to take it too seriously."

For all that resolute cheeriness, Armitage, who joined the army at 16, admits that his time in Normandy still haunts him.

"Almost every day, something flashes in my mind about what happened here. So it had to have been a bit traumatic."

More than 400 memorial events are planned this week, although bad weather forced some to be cancelled Wednesday, including a planned parachute drop from vintage planes including four Dakota transporters which took part in D-Day.

The main June 6 international ceremony of remembrance is taking place on the beach at Ouistreham and will be attended by an A-list collection of world leaders headed by Britain's Queen Elizabeth and US President Barack Obama, as well as 9,000 invited guests.

The crisis in Ukraine -- in its way part of the unfinished business of World War II -- means that the veterans will have to share the news spotlight with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But that will not stop them from paying fitting tribute to all those who put their lives on the line to ensure the success of the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe and, ultimately, the defeat of Hitlerism.

Of the 156,000-plus troops who waded or parachuted onto French soil on June 6, 1944, nearly 4,500 would be dead by the end of the day.

On Thursday, a flotilla of ships will set off from Britain's main naval port of Portsmouth in commemoration of the nearly 7,000 vessels that took part in the invasion.

Weather permitting, the same day will also see a mass parachute drop at Ranville -- the first village to be liberated, a vigil at Pegasus Bridge and midnight fireworks along the coast.

Russia's annexation of Crimea in March has triggered a sharp downturn in Moscow's relations with the West but there are hopes that the decision not to cancel Putin's invitation to the ceremonies could provide a catalyst for an improvement in relations.

Obama is playing hard to get but British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all promised Putin some face time while he is in France.

The Russian leader is also being pressed to meet his newly-elected Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko.

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