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BEDFORD Va. (Reuters) - Seventy years after D-Day, Carl Proffitt Jr. can still remember the bodies of soldiers washing up on France's Omaha Beach in the Allied invasion that helped turn the tide against Nazi Germany in World War Two.
One of the dwindling band of World War Two veterans who gathered on Friday at the National D-Day Memorial to mark the anniversary, Proffitt was in the first wave of infantry put ashore on Normandy's Omaha Beach in the teeth of German gunfire.
"If there was such a thing as hell on earth, that was it," Proffitt, 95, of Charlottesville, Virginia, told Reuters. He still carries German mortar shrapnel in a leg.
The day after the landing, "the tide had come in and washed all the dead bodies up against the sea wall. I couldn't believe it," said Proffitt, second in command of a boatload of soldiers in Company K, 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division.
"Blown to pieces, human bodies, all kinds of equipment. I can't discuss it, really, because I don't know how."
Thousands of spectators gathered under brilliant sunshine to honor Proffitt and other veterans of the largest seaborne invasion in history and the Normandy campaign that drove Adolf Hitler's troops from France.
The commemoration drew about 350 veterans from at least eight U.S. states. With the youngest of them in their late 80s, the event had been billed by organizers as likely the last large gathering of D-Day veterans.
Bedford, a scenic town in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, is the home of the D-Day Memorial because 19 men from there were killed when they landed on Omaha Beach, the largest per-capita D-Day loss by any U.S. community.
The memorial "is a visible reminder of the need each of us has in the here and now to honor all of those who have sacrificed, and those who are sacrificing, and those who will sacrifice to preserve the liberty we enjoy," said the main speaker, Virginia Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine.
The commemoration included prayers, a flyover by World War Two aircraft, a parachute jump, the reading of eyewitness accounts of the invasion and bands playing martial tunes and 1940s' swing. A bagpiper skirled "Amazing Grace," wreaths were laid and a bugler played "Taps."
But the main attraction was the elderly veterans, many in wheelchairs, who shared their memories of the fighting.
"You had two things facing you, one was the enemy, the other was death. We lived like animals," said William "Doc" Long, 90, of Oak Ridge, North Carolina. Long was wounded by an anti-tank shell and spent 25 months in a hospital.
As of last September, there were about 1.25 million U.S. World War Two veterans still alive, and 413 die each day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Other D-Day events across the country took place at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and in Abilene, Kansas, the boyhood home of Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower.
In New York Harbor, several helicopters showered the Statue of Liberty with a million red rose petals.
Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Peter Cooney