SAINTE-MARIE-DU-MONT, France (AP) — With World War II-era military planes darting overhead and Normandy's Utah Beach visible in the distance, a bronze statue emerged from beneath a camouflage parachute, in tribute to a man whose quiet leadership was chronicled in the book and television series "Band of Brothers."
The unveiling of the Colorado-made statue of Pennsylvania native Maj. Dick Winters was one of many events marking Wednesday's 68th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied operation that paved the way for the end of the war.
The 12-foot (3.6-meter) tall bronze statue in the Normandy village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont shows Winters with his weapon at the ready. But Winters — a native of Ephrata, Pennsylvania, who died last year at age 92 — only accepted serving as the statue's likeness after monument planners agreed to dedicate it to the memory of all junior U.S. military officers who served that day.
"There were many Dick Winters in this war, and all deserve the bronze and glory of a statue," said former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, present as the bronze statue, draped in a camouflage parachute, was unveiled.
Also attending were four or five D-Day vets, including two who served in Winters' "Easy Company," Al Mampre and Herb Suerth Jr.
Winters "was a humble, simple person thrust into a position of leadership in which he excelled," said Suerth, who heads the association of former Easy Company vets, only 19 of whom survive.
The statue was made in Loveland, Colorado and transported here, to a roadside between the village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and Utah Beach, distant but visible behind the statue.
It was here that Winters and his small band of men dropped out of the sky soon after midnight on June 6, 1944, on a death-defying mission to destroy four German 105mm artillery guns that threatened the Allied invasion force.
During the ceremony, World War II-era military aircraft flew overhead, including a U.S. artillery spotting plane just like those that would have darted through the skies on D-Day.
Master Sergeant Frank Barnett, 37, a paratrooper from Anniston, Alabama, serving at the U.S. Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany, attended the ceremony with other members of the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing. Barnett and 18 colleagues had made the trip to Utah Beach to participate in a parachute jump over the same Normandy fields where Winters and his "Easy Company" landed soon on D-Day.
The paratroopers, dressed in military fatigues, said they've all watched "Band of Brothers" ''four or five times."
"It's important for us on the airborne side to remember everything they did," Barnett said. "They are the Greatest Generation."
The plan to erect the statue began 2½ years ago, said Tim Gray, Chairman of the Rhode Island-based World War II Foundation, which initiated the project and helped raise the $100,000 it cost.
The statue "is not a monument to one man, it's a monument to many men and the leadership they showed on D-Day," Gray said — "all the divisions that fought on the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy on June 6, 1944."
Tens of thousands of Allied and German forces were killed in the D-Day invasion and ensuing Battle of Normandy.
Frenchman Reny Rossey, 86, recalled accompanying a British unit in the invasion as part of the effort to liberate his country from the Nazi occupation.
"Coming back home, for us, it was enormous. We had to do this job," he said at a ceremony Wednesday at a British cemetery in Ranville.
"My youth saved me. I was 17½. I had no fear," he said. "You had to have audacity to join in something like that."
French President Francois Hollande, paying tribute Wednesday to the soldiers who took part in the D-Day invasion, spoke of the European unity born from the horrors of World War II — and that is strained today by financial crisis and tensions over Muslim immigration.
"Normandy is covered with the tombs of children from all of Europe. All Europeans ... should be capable, 68 years later, of bringing Europe peace, solidarity and progress," he said. "Only the emergence of a common European conscience will protect us against the return of hate."
Sylvie Corbet in Ranville, France contributed to this report.