For the first French town liberated on D-Day, history is personal

Uniformed American soldiers poured out of bars and cafes around June 6 Square, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.

Phil Collins roared from the loudspeakers. American flags flutter from chimneys and windows, on overhead wires and even around the neck of a golden retriever trotting with its owner.

Is this really France?

“This is the 53rd canton,” Philippe Nekrassoff, the local deputy mayor, said as he walked across the square, with its Roman column and medieval church, while American paratroopers in maroon berets played soccer with a group of local teenagers. “Americans are at home here.”

This is Ste.-Mère-Église, a town in northwestern Normandy with one main street. About 3,000 residents live in the town and surrounding area, with its cow fields and towering fences.

Hundreds of American paratroopers landed in the nearby area at dawn on June 6, 1944. Four hours later – even before the world’s largest army arrived on the nearby Normandy beaches – one of the soldiers that pulled down the Nazi flag and raised the American flag. up to city hall.

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

That story of liberation is now deeply embedded in the town’s identity.

While most villages across Normandy hold annual D-Day celebrations, tiny Ste.-Mère-Église hosts six parades, 10 ceremonies, 11 concerts and a parachute jump by Current US paratroopers.

Statues, plaques and historical plaques dot many street corners. The stores have names like D-Day, Bistrot 44 and Hair’born salon. There is an effigy 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, parachute billowing. your roll.

At first glance, this town seems too unabashed and American for a country that likes to be self-critical and understated.

But persevere a little, and the town will reveal a deep, sincere, and beautiful relationship with the U.S. paratroopers.

“There is a welcoming feeling here,” said Jacques Villain, a photographer who has documented the village’s celebrations for 25 years and was the driving force behind the just-published bilingual book “Ste.-Mère.” unlike anywhere else in the area.” -Église: We will remember them.”

He points out that the town’s first D-Day commemoration was small and took place even as the war in Europe was still raging. On the first anniversary, Major General James Gavin, then commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, sent 30 soldiers back from Germany to attend the ceremony.

Just after midnight on June 6, 1944, waves of low-flying planes roared over Ste.-Mère-Église and the surrounding area. From there, thousands of parachutes soared across the sky like confetti.

A parachute flew straight into a trench dug in Georgette Flais’s backyard, where she was huddled with her parents and a neighbor. With it comes Cliff Maughan. Ms. Flais called him “our American.”

“To me, he represented something extraordinary — liberation,” said Ms. Flais, now 96.

She recalls seeing the German soldier stationed in her house burst into view, his rifle pointed at the trench. Ms. Flais’s father jumped up and begged the German not to shoot. Miraculously, he agreed.

Soon, the German soldier realized the Americans had taken over the town and surrendered to Mr. Maughan, whom Mrs. Flais described as unusually calm, offering chewing gum, chocolate and cigarettes. He curled up on his parachute to take a nap before going out to fight at dawn.

“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 first burial ground for fallen American soldiers – 13,800 in three fields that became cemeteries around the village. Local people dig graves.

“It’s just a small village with 1,300 residents,” said Marc Lefèvre, the town’s mayor for 30 years, who left office in 2014. They witnessed the cost of sacrifice with all those coffin trucks. That left a huge impact.”

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

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

The response from grieving mothers in the United States was immediate. Hundreds of people sent letters to Ms. Renaud, begging her to visit their son’s grave and send photos. She did.

Henri-Jean Renaud, 89, recently turned through an album of carefully arranged letters to his mother, written by hand, from 80 years ago.

Several women later personally visited the grave. They had dinner with Renaud’s family and sometimes stayed at their house. “I am still in contact with a family whose children are my age,” Mr. Renaud said.

He still visits a soldier’s grave “every now and then to say hello to him a little,” he said.

Years later, American veterans began making pilgrimages to Ste.-Mère-Église to commemorate D-Day every year.

The town has only one hotel, which was renamed after Mr. Steele. So Ms. Renaud, who died in 1988, founded the Friends of American Veterans, and many locals joined and welcomed visitors in their homes.

Volunteers spent the afternoon driving around, trying to help veterans find the exact spot in the field, swamp or trees where they first landed.

“For most of them, it was there that they had their first losses, their first strong emotions, their first friend killed, their first injured,” Mr. Renaud said. “Those are the things that mark your life. So they’re always trying to find that beginning.”

By 1984, Ms. Flais was teaching Greek and Latin at 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 returned to Ste.-Mère-Église. He was bigger and wore a baseball cap instead of a helmet. But he also has such a laid-back attitude. She jumped in the car and drove back to her childhood town.

“That’s my American,” she said. “We fell into each other’s arms.”

Today, 80 years later, there are very few veterans left. Their successors are now gathered in the town square, where Mr. Steele and his World War II paratroopers are honored and remembered as true gods.

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

“It was overwhelming,” said Jonathan Smith, 43, whose trip here was a retirement gift after serving 18 and a half years in the 82nd Airborne Division. “This morning, I couldn’t walk 10 steps without kids stopping me to take pictures and shake hands.”

The local tourism office expects about a million people to come to town during the 10 days of commemorations and celebrations this year.

Among them are descendants of the Americans responsible for D-Day, from General Roosevelt Jr. to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander in chief of the Allied forces.

“I felt like I needed to be here and be a part of it,” said Chloe Gavin, General Gavin’s daughter, who returned frequently before her death.

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

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

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

“We are so lucky,” said Mrs. Auvray, now 97 and a great-grandmother of 13. It will be a bloodbath.”

Three American paratroopers landed in her garden.

A US military hospital was quickly built next door. Her farm became a health clinic and temporary housing for civilians fleeing the fighting that followed the Germans’ attempt to retake Ste.-Mère-Église. They feed 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 wounded.

Michel-Yves is about to turn 80.

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

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


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