I walked 20 paces into the sea, turned around and looked back at the beach, Omaha Beach.

Lying in peaceful repose in the warm Normandy sunshine, the beach was breathtakingly beautiful. The only sound that August day was the rhythmic lapping of gentle waves.

Except for a lack of crashing surf, Omaha could easily have been mistaken for Laguna or Malibu.

The 15 people with me on the beach that day were quiet and reverent. It was almost as if we were silently praying at some holy shrine. A cathedral, perhaps. As far as I could determine — though this was France — everyone on the beach that afternoon was an American.

We'd been drawn to the beach by a common sentiment: gratitude. And also by unabashed patriotism and pride.

But tranquility was not the state of affairs on that beach during the morning hours of June 6, 1944. American soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division who landed on that stretch of real estate encountered a very different Omaha Beach — smoke-filled with terrifying explosions and populated by the dead and dying.

It was maddening, crazy, unimaginable. One could never — in a lifetime — adequately prepare for such a human catastrophe.

There were daunting 100-foot cliffs at the rear of the beach to be scaled. Going over the top of those French cliffs was a fearsome if not impossible challenge for young GIs from Kansas, North Dakota and Mississippi.

The Germans occupied pillboxes and gun emplacements at the top of the cliffs and raked the Americans methodically with overlapping and enfilading machine gun and mortar fire.

It became a slaughter pen, much like the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Va., in 1864. There, Union soldiers found themselves trapped in a collapsed crater while the Confederates mercilessly poured fire on them. It was later gruesomely referred to as a "turkey shoot."

That's what it must have felt like to the American soldiers 80 years later assaulting that beach. But the heights were finally taken.

I stood on Omaha Beach in August of 2002, 58 years after the successful cross-channel landing that changed the war and the world. Hitler's Fortress Europa was finally breached.

Tears welled in my eyes. I was proud of my father's generation.

The flower of American youth was sacrificed on that beach on June 6. Those young men paid the ultimate price, and some were barely out of high school.

The 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings will be celebrated next week.

It seems that this nation has lost its way in recent decades. We've replaced honor with scandal and selflessness with self-indulgence. That's sad. But at least we still recognize courage.

After pausing for last-moment reflections, I walked across Omaha Beach and climbed the steep path to the American cemetery above the cliff.

The beautiful Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer encompasses 172 acres and contains 9,387 burials of U.S. servicemen and women. It's a little treasure of French coastline that now officially belongs to the American people. It's been deeded to us.

And rightfully so. We didn't have to, but we elected to pay a dear price in blood and treasure in order to wrest that ground from the Nazis. It was an early step in the emancipation of France and the liberation of much of the rest of Europe.

I spent an hour walking among the white crosses in the cemetery, laid out in perfect alignment in the form of a Latin cross. I encountered names on the headstones like Pfc. James R. Catlett, Sgt. Joseph P. Krizek, Pvt. Santiago R. Munoz and 2nd Lt. George L. O'Neal.

Four heroes out of more than 9,000.

I left the cemetery that August afternoon grateful and deeply moved. These courageous soldiers had willingly sacrificed their futures in order to secure mine.

In retrospect, I've been blessed with a wonderful life in the best country on Earth. I owe these Normandy veterans — and every American veteran of every generation — for my freedom.

"Greater love hath no man than this, that (he) lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.