For the First French Town Liberated on D-Day, History Is Personal

American soldiers in uniforms spill out from the bars and cafes all around June 6 Square, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

Phil Collins blares from loudspeakers. American flags flutter from chimneys and windows, on overhead lines and even from around the neck of a golden retriever trotting by with her owner.

Is this really France?

“This is the 53rd state,” Philippe Nekrassoff, a local deputy mayor, said as he made his way across the square, with its Roman milestone and medieval church, while U.S. paratroopers wearing maroon berets played soccer with a group of local teenagers. “Americans are at home here.”

Here is Ste.-Mère-Église, a slip of a town in northwest Normandy with one main street. About 3,000 residents live in the town and its surrounding region, with its fields of cows and towering hedges.

Hundreds of U.S. paratroopers landed in the immediate area in the early hours of June 6, 1944. Four hours later — even before the world’s largest armada arrived to the nearby Normandy beaches — one of those soldiers hauled down the Nazi flag and hoisted an American one up over city hall.

“This was the first town to be liberated on the western front,” read two marble plaques, one in French and one in English, in front of the building.

The story of that liberation is now deeply threaded into the town’s identity.

While most villages across Normandy hold annual D-Day commemorations, little Ste.-Mère-Église hosts six parades, 10 ceremonies, 11 concerts and a parachute jump by current U.S. paratroopers.

Statues, plaques and historical panels dot many street corners. Shops have names like D-Day, Bistrot 44 and Hair’born salon. There’s a mannequin of John Steele, the American paratrooper immortalized in the 1962 film “The Longest Day,” hanging from the church steeple as he did on June 6, 1944, his parachute billowing.

At first blush, the town seems, well, too unabashedly and in-your-face American for a country that revels in self-criticism and understatement.

But stick around a bit, and the town reveals a relationship with U.S. paratroopers that is deep, sincere and disarmingly beautiful.

“There is a sense of welcome here that’s nothing like anything else in the region,” said Jacques Villain, a photographer who has documented the village’s celebration for 25 years and was the driving force behind the just-published bilingual book “Ste.-Mère-Église: We Will Remember Them.”

The town’s first D-Day commemoration was small and took place two months later, while the war in Europe was still raging, he pointed out. On the first anniversary of D-Day, Maj. Gen. James Gavin, by then the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, sent 30 soldiers back from Germany for the ceremonies.

Just after midnight on June 6, 1944, wave after wave of low-flying airplanes roared over Ste.-Mère-Église and the surrounding area. Spilling from them were thousands of parachutes, flitting across the sky like confetti.

One parachute floated right down into a trench dug in Georgette Flais’ backyard, where she was huddled with her parents and a neighbor. Attached to it was Cliff Maughan. Ms. Flais refers to him as “our American.”

“He represented, for me, something extraordinary — liberation,” said Ms. Flais, now 96.

She recalled how the German soldier billeted in her house burst into view, his rifle pointed into the trench. Ms. Flais’ father jumped up and begged the German not to shoot. Miraculously, he agreed.

Soon after, the German soldier realized the Americans had taken the town and surrendered to Mr. Maughan, who Ms. Flais described as preternaturally calm, handing out chewing gum, chocolate and cigarettes. He curled up on his parachute for a quick nap before heading out at dawn to fight.

“We kissed him warmly goodbye,” Ms. Flais said. “A friendship was born.”

As the first place to be liberated, Ste.-Mère-Église quickly became the place where fallen American soldiers were first buried — 13,800 in three fields turned cemeteries around the village. Local men dug the graves.

“It was just a little village of 1,300 inhabitants,” said Marc Lefèvre, the town’s mayor for 30 years who left office in 2014. “They were witness to the price of sacrifice, with all those trucks of coffins. That left a huge impact.”

One of the graves was for Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who died of a heart attack five weeks after landing on Utah Beach. He was the eldest son of Theodore Roosevelt, the former U.S. president.

Simone Renaud, the mayor’s wife, was captured laying flowers on his tomb by a Life magazine photographer.

The reaction from grieving mothers in the United States was immediate. Hundreds sent Ms. Renaud letters, pleading for her to visit their son’s graves and send back photos. She complied.

Henri-Jean Renaud, 89, recently flipped through albums of carefully sorted letters to his mother, written in longhand, from 80 years ago.

Some of the women later came to visit the graves themselves. They ate dinner with the Renauds and sometimes stayed in their home. “I am still in touch with a family that had a kid my age,” Mr. Renaud said.

He still visits the grave of one soldier “from time to time, to say a little hello to him,” he said.

Years later, American veterans began to make pilgrimages to Ste.-Mère-Église for its annual D-Day commemorations.

The town had only one hotel, since renamed after Mr. Steele. So Ms. Renaud, who died in 1988, formed the Friends of American Veterans association, and many locals joined and hosted the visitors in their homes.

Volunteers spent afternoons driving around, trying to help the veterans find the exact spot in a field or marsh or tree where they first landed.

“For most of them, it was there they had their first losses, their first powerful emotions, the first friend killed, the first wounded,” Mr. Renaud said. “Those are things that mark you for life. So they were always trying to find that beginning.”

By 1984, Ms. Flais was teaching Greek and Latin in a high school in Alençon, about 140 miles away. On June 6 of that year, she was watching television when she saw on the screen an American soldier who had come back to Ste.-Mère-Église. He was broader, and wore a baseball hat instead of a helmet. But he had that same laid-back demeanor. She jumped in the car and rushed back to her childhood town.

“It was my American,” she said. “We fell into one another’s arms.”

Today, 80 years later, there are few veterans left. Their successors now crowd the town square, where Mr. Steele and his fellow World War II parachutists are celebrated and remembered as veritable gods.

They are joined by the thousands of re-enactment enthusiasts, tourists and French citizens who come to pay their respects.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Jonathan Smith, 43, whose trip here was a retirement present after 18 and a half years of service with the 82nd Airborne Division. “I didn’t make it 10 paces this morning without kids stopping me to ask for a photo and shake my hand.”

The local tourism office is expecting one million people to come into town over the 10 days of commemorations and celebrations this year.

Among them are the children and grandchildren of the Americans who were in charge on D-Day, from General Roosevelt Jr. to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander in chief of the Allied forces.

“I find I need to be here and be a part of it,” said Chloe Gavin, the daughter of General Gavin, who himself came back regularly before he died.

On a recent night, local families welcomed more than 200 American soldiers into their homes for dinner.

Across the street from city hall, where the American flag that soldiers hung up in 1944 now hangs framed on a wall, three generations of the Auvray family sat in their garden with three U.S. paratroopers from Puerto Rico. The family matriarch, Andrée Auvray, regaled them with her memories of D-Day.

She was nine months pregnant and living on a horse farm just outside town that had been requisitioned by a battalion of soldiers with the German army. Just days before the Allies’ landing, the soldiers departed for Cherbourg, France, convinced the Allies would attack there, she said.

“We were so lucky,” said Ms. Auvray, now 97 and a great-grandmother of 13. “It would have been a blood bath.”

Three American paratroopers landed in her garden.

An American military hospital was quickly erected next door. Her farm became the health clinic and a temporary home for civilians, fleeing the battle that ensued after German troops tried to retake Ste.-Mère-Église. They fed 120 people for a month. She gave birth to her son, Michel-Yves, on a camp bed because her bed had been given to the injured.

Michel-Yves will turn 80 soon.

Ms. Auvray described the missiles exploding nearby, the gnawing fear that the Germans would retake the town and her gratitude that they did not.

“We lived through such anguish together,” she said of the American soldiers and French residents. “That’s why we have such a precious relationship.”



Source link

Leave a comment