Sainte-Mère-Eglise, France — On June 6, 1944, and during the ensuing summer, fighters from around the world stormed the coast of Normandy to free Europe from the Nazi yoke.
Thousands of American, British, Canadian, Polish, Belgian, Norwegian, Australian and Czechoslovakian soldiers lost their lives alongside their French brothers-in-arms during the battles. Normandy is forever marked by the graves, spread out over the region, of the many heroes who gave their lives to free the world from Nazi dominance. Every year since that date, Normandy’s inhabitants make it a point of honor to acknowledge the sacrifice of the fallen through grand celebrations.
This year, marking the 75th anniversary of the landings, thousands of people from around the world are gathering in the emblematic places of the battle to honor the dead. These commemorations are expected to be the last important anniversary for many of the surviving veterans who fought in 1944.
Celebrations will be held throughout this year and will be in full swing around June 6. The international commemorative ceremony will take place on the Canadian sector of Juno Beach, in Courseulles-sur-Mer, in the presence of the last war veterans and many heads of state, in front of hundreds of thousands of onlookers, with many more viewing the event on television. The many activities the region has planned for this special anniversary include synchronized artworks on the major sites of the D-Day landings, historical reconstructions, exhibitions, Liberation balls and a giant picnic on Omaha Beach (where many of the U.S. Armed Forces landed in 1944).
On June 9, thousands of members of American, German and English military units will parachute above Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the village that houses the Airborne Museum, dedicated to the memory of the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions of the U.S. Army who parachuted into Normandy. Sainte-Mère-Eglise, which is close to the beaches used for the landings, became famous because of American paratrooper John Marvin Steele, who landed on the pinnacle of the church tower of the village, the first village liberated by the U.S. Army in German-occupied Normandy. Steele survived the ordeal by pretending to be dead as he dangled from the pinnacle for two hours before German soldiers captured him (he later escaped a prisoner of war camp to rejoin his unit.)
The Normans paid a very heavy toll in human lives during these dreadful battles, a fact which is still not well-known today. “Twenty-two thousand civilians were killed in June ’44, but there is no resentment among the population for the cost of such liberation,” Magali Mallet, the director of the Airborne Museum, told the Register, highlighting the fact that the Normans still feel particularly close and attached to the American people.
“Every year at the approach of June, we can see a lot of American flags on the houses of the area, or banners with both French and American flags together. It happens all the time,” Mallet said. According to her, in the center of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, most of the shopkeepers put up paintings remembering the liberation of the village in 1944 and the role the American Army played in it. “The house and shop window bunting attest to the Normans’ state of mind,” Mallet said. “There is a very strong feeling of friendship and a thank-you spirit toward the Americans.”
“Such gratefulness is also expressed by a very significant presence of the population at the ceremonies,” she added. “For this important anniversary, the veterans are coming, and we know it is probably one of the last times we can see them.” Mallet estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 people are expected to converge on the village’s church square for the various celebrations planned between June 6 and June 9, which include historical parades, a remembrance Mass, conferences, film projections and exhibitions of period military vehicles.
These efforts to keep alive the knowledge that American soldiers made such sacrifices to liberate France have become a life mission for some French citizens. The French association Les Fleurs de la Mémoire (“The Flowers of Memory”) is a vibrant testimony of such commitment. Founded in 2000 from a joint initiative of American veteran Frank Towers and French reporter Claude Lavieille, the association strives to honor the memory of the soldiers fallen in Normandy. Les Fleurs de la Mémoire has 4,700 members, most of whom are French (mostly from northwest of the country); but it also has members from Australia, Japan and a few European countries.
As part of the organization’s mission, its members lay flowers on the graves of the soldiers buried in the American military cemeteries of Colleville-sur-Mer and Saint-James in Normandy at least once or twice a year. Each member must adopt a grave, and it is a tradition that the parents pass on the torch to their children within families in order to ensure that this commemorative gesture continues from generation to generation.
“These times of recognition and gratefulness from families are very important, and the Norman families are very sensitive to every kind of commemoration for the fallen soldiers,” Georges-Pierre Joret, director of Les Fleurs de la Mémoire, told the Register, noting that almost every village of the region bears a legacy from the war.
This calling to keep the memory of fallen soldiers alive has also led to beautiful encounters between France and the United States. Sometimes, the families of dead American soldiers ask to be put in touch with the grave sponsors.
“Three years ago, the daughter of a soldier asked us to put her in contact with the sponsor of her father’s grave, and we found out it was a boy aged 17 who adopted the grave when he was 9 — of his own free will,” Joret said. “The boy had the chance to meet the daughter of this soldier. It was an incredibly moving moment for all of us, as it makes our mission even more meaningful.”
One of the main goals of the association is also to teach young people about the importance of keeping these memories from D-Day alive. Municipalities often adopt one or several graves and then bring schools to the cemeteries to educate pupils and make them aware of the great value of peace.
According to Joret, Catholics in America have especially taken notice of the efforts made by members of Les Fleurs de la Mémoire.
“The Americans are very appreciative of our activities,” Joret said, noting that a group of American pilgrims recently visited the association after a pilgrimage in Rome and Lourdes.
A Three-Century Friendship
The friendship between France and the United States didn’t start in 1944 — but it was greatly strengthened. The alliance between these two democracies goes back a lot further than that. In 1917, the United States already offered decisive help to France and the Allied powers against Germany, which contributed to ending World War I.
On July 4, 1917, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Charles Stanton delivered a famous speech pronounced at the tomb of American Revolution hero Marquis de Lafayette at Picpus cemetery in Paris. Stanton was an aide to the leader of the American forces during World War I, Gen. John Pershing. In the speech, Stanton declared that the American intervention in France was a way to honor the memory of the French soldiers who fought and died beside American patriots during the Revolutionary War to help the 13 British colonies win independence from Great Britain and establish the United States of America. During the same struggle for independence, in 1781, French Army troops led by the comte de Rochambeau, Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, provided vital support to Gen. George Washington during the Siege of Yorktown.
“Nowadays, France and the United States are still very close and stand side by side to defend a certain idea of the world,” Jérôme Danard told the Register. Danard is president of France Etats-Unis, a French association created in the aftermath of World War II to strengthen the bonds between the two countries.
“We are now united in our common fight against terrorism and extremisms,” Danard said, “but over the past centuries, we have been constantly defending freedom, democracy and justice, three fundamental values on which we’ve been united since the 18th century.”
According to Danard, even if peace is threatened in many parts of the world today, even if democracy and freedom are often abused and geopolitics issues arouse tensions among nations, “memory will always get the better of oblivion.”
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.