Reminders of D-Day are part of everyday life in Normandy

Wartime memories stay vivid for the French who have lived to tell its tale

May 26, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

STE.-MERE-EGLISE — STE.-MERE-EGLISE, France - D-Day is recalled in a rusty water pump Raymond Paris used to fight a farmhouse fire as he watched Europe's liberators float from the night sky.

It's an embroidered handkerchief an American soldier handed to the first French girl he met, Jeanne Pentecote.

And it's a scarred chestnut tree in the front courtyard of Suzanne Duchemin's chateau, where wounded were tended and refugees slept beneath the stars.

"I think about D-Day a lot," said Duchemin, an 80-year-old with an encyclopedic knowledge of a battle she survived. "There are not many days when I don't talk about D-Day with my friends who lived through this."

D-Day's survivors may be dwindling, but this is where D-Day lives on in memories, monuments and battlefields.

June 6, 1944 - the Allied invasion of Europe - is as much a part of the landscape as the hedgerows, marshes, beaches and the sea. Every spring, schoolchildren, tourists and aging veterans make their pilgrimages to landing beaches, cemeteries and museums.

President Bush, who is to arrive in Paris today, comes to the region tomorrow to mark Memorial Day and recall one of the 20th century's pivotal events.

But the 1,500 residents of this crossroads town, a few miles inland from Utah Beach, don't need reminders of D-Day.

It's all around them.

It's in the streets named after soldiers, the Airborne Museum filled with invasion relics, the farm fields that served as landing zones for paratroopers and gliders, the town church where two stained-glass windows depict the events while outside a parachute is draped over the bell tower and a model paratrooper dangles below.

It was on this old stone church where Army Pvt. John Steele was stuck, the bells ringing, a scene played out in the movie The Longest Day.

In front of the town hall is a simple marble slab with words etched in gold: "This was the first town to be liberated on the western front 5-6 June 1944. Saga of the all American."

Around midnight June 5, more than 13,000 troops from the U.S. Army's 82d and 101st Airborne divisions dropped into the region before the dawn invasion from the sea.

Paris was there that night, a 20-year-old who was part of a bucket brigade fighting a fire.

Then as now, the center of Ste.-Mere-Eglise was a square that surrounded the Norman church, built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Just 100 yards south of the church was the home where Paris and his parents lived, the second floor of a townhouse.

Father and son ran out to fight the fire, along with a few others in the town. As they formed their bucket brigade, a few paratroopers landed off course right by the church.

"When the first landed, I raised my hands to the heavens, `This is the landings,'" Paris recalled.

He's 78, now, with silver hair, hazel eyes and a sharp memory after serving five decades as a notary. He recalled D-Day as if it were yesterday. And he doted over that water pump, rusty and chained.

It still stands by the church.

"If you had lived under the occupation you would understand that D-Day was the high point of my life," he said.

Others recall it the same way.

Pentecote was 16, a butcher's daughter who hid with her family in a cellar as the invasion began. But an uncle encouraged her to go outside and see the action.

"He said, `Oh, my God, come look at this. We'll never see this again.'" said Pentecote, now 74. "I went outside and saw a plane fly over the level of the chimneys. It was too low. This parachutist was standing on the edge of the plane. He didn't jump. I was very impressed."

She went back into the cellar.

After the initial invasion, she accompanied her father to the butcher shop where she met an American soldier. The soldier told her in French that his mother gave him a handkerchief and ordered him to give it to the first French girl he met.

That girl was Pentecote.

The handkerchief, flecked with violets, is in the town's museum.

Did she give that soldier a kiss?

"Certainly not," she recalled with a smile. "Not in front of my father."

Others in the town have memories, too.

The day before the invasion, Louis Marion was on a German work detail, digging holes for trees. A week later, he was digging graves for Americans.

Now 75, Marion can't remember the precise location of the graveyard, but he can recall those first days after the invasion - the bursts of gunfire, the fear, the cold.

"We slept in the church," he said. "Children, babies. We had no blankets. People slept in the pews. I laid next to the altar."

Andree Auvray remembered how German gunners trooped through her parents' home and guarded the key crossroads from the rooftop. And she remembered the night of the invasion, when she was at a farm in a nearby village and the parachutes came from the sky.

"We heard the dogs barking and thought the Germans were coming," she said. "And then we saw two parachutists and they weren't German. They were American."

She and her husband showed the men inside and brought out a map to show them where the Germans were stationed.

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