June 6, 2014 6:28 AM EDT

Updated Friday at 9:56 a.m.

President Barack Obama called for recognition of the allied forces who turned the tide of history during a stirring speech in Normandy, France, on Friday morning at a ceremony to honor the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe.

“It was here on these shores that the tide was turned in the common struggle for freedom,” Obama said. “Whenever the world makes you cynical, stop and think of these men.”

The Commander-in-Chief cited the sacrifices of the fallen and the 70 years of democratic movement that spawned in the wake of World War II as aging veterans paid their respects to the tens of thousands of young soldiers who were killed during the opening days of Operation Overlord.

More than 150,000 troops participated in the invasion by land, sea and air in the early hours of June 6, 1944. Tens of thousands of British and North American troops stormed the beachheads of the German-occupied Norman coastline amid the largest amphibious assault in the history of warfare.

Allied forces suffered an estimated 10,000 casualties during the first 24 hours of the bloody 77-day campaign. The invasion succeeded in punching a massive hole into the Nazi war machine’s western defenses and marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s reign.

“More than 20,000 Americans paid with their lives here in Normandy,” French President François Hollande said during the ceremony’s opening remarks. “They were your parents, your brothers, your friends. They were our liberators.”

After their speeches, Obama and Hollande placed a wreath at a memorial in the cemetery honoring those who died fighting to fascist’s forces in northern France.

Europe was primarily carved into two ideological camps in wake of the collapse of Nazi Germany, pitting Washington against Moscow. More than 20 years since the end of the Cold War, tensions between East and West have again burst to the surface.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea this past March upped hostilities in Europe to one of the highest levels in decades. Despite the tension, Obama attended a post-speech lunch hosted by Hollande at the American cemetery with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Obama and Putin had an informal conversation “on the margins” of the lunch for 10 to 15 minutes, according to pool reports.

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME
You May Also Like