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French survivors keep D-Day gratitude alive

Published: Friday, May 30, 2014 11:35 p.m. CDT

SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE, France – Andree Auvray, nine months pregnant, was hiding from German bombings in a Normandy ditch with her husband one night in June 1944 when their dogs started barking. The shadows of three soldiers appeared.

"We both came out to see what was going on," she recalls. She initially thought the men were the Nazi occupiers who had upended life in her quiet farming village. "And then I said 'No, it's not the Germans!'

The soldiers were Americans. D-Day had begun.

Auvray relives that wrenching time with clarity and a growing sense of urgency. Seventy years have passed since the Allied invasion of Normandy helped turn the tide against Hitler. With their numbers rapidly diminishing, she and other French women and men who owe their freedom to D-Day's fighters are more determined than ever to keep alive the memory of the battle and its meaning.

As President Barack Obama and other world leaders prepare to gather in Normandy next week to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle, French survivors are speaking to schools, conferences, tourists, filmmakers about their experiences, and their gratitude.

That's especially important to Auvray's hometown of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first village liberated by the Allies after D-Day.

About 15,000 paratroopers landed in and around the town not long after midnight on June 6, 1944, and seized it from the Germans at 4:30 a.m. An American flag was raised in front of the town hall.

During the drop, American paratrooper John Steele's parachute got caught on the church spire. For two hours, Steele hung there, feigning death before being taken prisoner by the Germans. Today, a dummy paratrooper hangs from the spire in his honor.

Henri-Jean Renaud was an excitable 10-year-old the night the Americans landed, and his father was the town mayor.

"Waves of planes came, paratroopers landed, and one hour later — after various events and fighting on the square between Germans and Americans — (my father) came back home," Renaud recounts. "He was all excited, saying 'There you go, it's the (D-Day) landing, it has finally happened!'"

While the population was grateful to the Americans, cohabitation was not easy that first day.

"The civilians were trying to make friends with them (the Americans), were showing gestures of sympathy, but at the very beginning it wasn't the hugging and kissing that one like to bring to mind, at least in Sainte-Mere-Eglise," he says.

"You have to put yourself in the shoes of these guys. They had been up for thirty-six hours, they had been parachuted by night in a hostile environment, and I also think that even the bravest ones were scared," Renaud explains.

Renaud's mother, who spoke fluent English, dedicated her life to honoring the American soldiers who gave their lives to free Sainte-Mere-Eglise, and stayed in touch with their families until her death.

After Life Magazine published a photo of her laying flowers on the Normandy grave of Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., eldest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, in August 1944, she received hundreds of letters from American families who had lost a relative during Operation Overlord, the code name for Allied invasion.

She would take a picture of a grave of an American soldier buried in Normandy, then write a letter, her son says. She would mail the photo, letter, and in summertime, a rose petal, to the soldier's family.

She wanted to send them "something that people could touch," Renaud said. "There is nothing more distressing than knowing that someone died somewhere, anywhere, without being able to tie it to an image."

Auvray also works to carry on the memory of World War II, by doing conferences in schools.

Now 88, she describes sleeping in a trench at her farm night after night as a very pregnant 18-year-old, hoping that would keep her and her new husband safe from bombings. The night of June 6, she had a small suitcase holding baby clothes and essentials, in case she had to give birth out in the ditch.

"I saw three shadows, three soldiers who were not making any noise," she remembers.

German Gen. Rommel had requisitioned their farm in March 1944 for a secret meeting with officers, and she thought they had come back. Then she realized that the rumors circulating about a possible Allied arrival were true.

In the days following the landing, Auvray's farm was transformed into a makeshift hospital for wounded civilians, and though untrained for it, she took on nursing duties.

She gave birth 13 days later, in her dining room.

Uncertainty and fear continued to haunt the village in the days following D-Day, for the civilians and the American soldiers.

"We didn't know if it would succeed," Auvray explains. "I also think that what contributed to our sincere friendship with the Americans is that we spent nearly a week where their only gained piece of land was here with us.

"So we lived and shared with them the anxiety of saying 'my God, let's hope they [the Germans] don't take us back. Let's hope it works out.'"

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