Normandy tries to keep alive ‘infinite gratitude’ for D-Day

May 28, 2019, 5:31 AM

In this May 2, 2019, photo, a worker cleans moss off the headstones of World War II soldiers at the...

In this May 2, 2019, photo, a worker cleans moss off the headstones of World War II soldiers at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France. The beauty of the cemetery strikes any visitor entering the site, with its immaculate lawns, majestic pines, commanding view of the Atlantic and row upon row of crosses. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

(AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE, France (AP) — At 10 years old, Henri-Jean Renaud watched U.S. paratroopers landing through the window of his Normandy home in the early hours of D-Day. Like other French who lived through the war, he’s trying to pass on to younger generations the gratitude he feels.

With fewer veterans and witnesses able to share personal memories, the French who owe their freedom to D-Day’s fighters are more determined than ever to keep alive the memory of the battle and its significance.

President Donald Trump and other world leaders will gather next week in Normandy to mark the 75th anniversary of the invasion, which still looms large throughout this region. Normandy beaches, cemeteries and World War II memorials embody what French President Macron called “our entire nation’s infinite gratitude.”

Renaud, now 85, recalls the strange atmosphere in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first village liberated by the Allies, on the morning of June 6, 1944. He could hear the fighting at a short distance but in the village, everything was calm.

“The civilians came down on the pavement and tried to fraternize with the Americans by making victory signs, waving hello, etc. But there hasn’t been any fraternization from the Americans because — you have to put yourself in their shoes — they were very nervous, very anxious. They had their finger on the trigger,” Renaud said.

Fraternization came later.

All his life, Renaud has taken care of veterans, hosting them and helping them visit the former battlefields, “because nothing touched me more than seeing those guys who were coming back, searching for the place where they were dropped, the place where they lost a friend.”

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

“It was making a lot of noise and the planes were flying low,” recalled 97-year-old Albert Guégan, a French civilian survivor living in Carentan, a few kilometers away. “We were in a ditch near our house with the neighbors. We thought we would be hit by bombs. But no, it was not a bombing. It was the paratroopers!”

More than 150,000 troops crossed the English Channel on D-Day, and more than 2 million Allied troops were in France by the end of August.

Among them was Frank Mouqué, who landed on Sword Beach as a 19-year-old corporal with the British Royal Engineers. Now 94, he has returned to Normandy more than 30 times at the invitation of a French family.

“It’s marvelous, the way we’re treated! They’re so pleased to welcome a veteran in that sense. You sit outside in the coffee shop, having early morning cup of coffee and people come up and shake your hand and say: ‘Merci, merci beaucoup. You are our savior!'”

British veteran Jack Woods has also returned to Normandy many times. As soon as the bus stops, he walks down to the cafe near the cathedral in Bayeux, where the owner tells everyone to clear out to make room for his friends from Britain.

“They go mad,” the 95-year-old said of his reception, adding that they always have “a whale of a time.”

Even amid the warmth, the trip is always a serious matter for him. He feels he has no choice.

Woods fought with the 9th Royal Tank Regiment and got to France at the end of June 1944, a few weeks after D-Day. But fighting was still intense, and many of the soldiers had never seen combat.

“I promised them I would not forget them,” he said of the pact he made with his fellow soldiers when he was just 20. “I can’t not go. We go over there and be with them — all these guys.”

Near Omaha Beach, the beauty of the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer strikes any visitor entering the site, with its immaculate lawns, majestic pines, commanding view of the Atlantic and row upon row of crosses.

The cemetery contains 9,380 graves, most of them for servicemen who lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations. Another 1,557 names are inscribed on the Walls of the Missing.

Alain Dupain, 61, is a gardener who has worked at the cemetery for 35 years, maintaining the grounds with a team of 20 people.

“We work for the families. When they come, we want the site to be perfect for them and their tombs … And I think if one of your loved ones dies and you arrive at a beautiful, well-maintained place like that, it will not erase the pain but might bring a little bit of relief.”

The site receives approximately 1 million visitors each year.

Superintendent Scott Desjardins of the American Battle Monuments Commission said the top priority “is to keep this site at the highest standards possible because it is the promise we made to the families who decided to keep their loved ones with us. It overrides every other priority.”

The memorial of Colleville-sur-Mer also aims to preserve soldiers’ stories, he added. “So we’ll continue to say their names. And continue to tell people what it is that they did.”

Normandy has more than 20 military cemeteries holding mostly Americans, Germans, French, British, Canadians and Polish.

Karen Lancelle, 42, who grew up in Colleville-sur-Mer, has been a guide at the cemetery for 12 years. She said the memory of the battle is still alive among children in the region thanks to frequent school visits and family stories told by older generations.

The cemetery is a place “where meetings can happen between the veterans and the youngest ones.” Nearly every day brings some kind of touching moment with American families, she said.

While visiting the cemetery, Vietnam veteran Tom Woolbright, 75, from Fort Worth, Texas, insisted on thanking the people of France “for maintaining and for honoring the men who died on that day … in such a beautiful fashion like this cemetery.”

“This bonds us, and a war like that should never happen again,” Woolbright said.


Corbet reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Colleville-sur-Mer and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

All News

Noah Pirkle snowshoes by the Mill B trailhead in Big Cottonwood Canyon on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024....

Carter Williams

Comparing Utah’s snowpack this winter with the rest of the West

Utah's mountains gained 12.9 inches of snow water equivalent, otherwise known as snowpack, between the season start on Dec. 1 to its end on Thursday

39 minutes ago

Cookie Monster has taken to X to express his frustration over shrinking products, aka: "shrinkflati...

Bryan Mena

Even Cookie Monster is complaining about the US economy

“Me hate shrinkflation! Me cookies are getting smaller,” Cookie Monster posted on X. “Guess me going to have to eat double da cookies!”

1 hour ago

Macy Schmidt, the founder of The Sinfonietta, conducts the group....

Mariah Maynes

Barbie The Movie: In Concert features all-women orchestra, coming to Utah

"Barbie the Movie: In Concert" features an all women orchestra. And the film featured an all-women team of production and tech professionals.

2 hours ago

Thousands of pounds of Trader Joe's chicken soup dumplings have been recalled due to possible conta...

Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN

Trader Joe’s chicken soup dumplings recalled for possible contamination

The manufacturer, CJ Foods Manufacturing Beaumont Corporation, said customers found hard plastic in the dumplings. 

2 hours ago

Some homeowners in South Jordan, Utah, woke up to a wall of tumbleweeds around their homes this wee...

Becky Bruce

South Jordan still cleaning up after tumbleweed take over

The invasive and non-native tumbleweeds blew into South Jordan on Saturday, blocking streets, driveways and even entire homes. 

3 hours ago

Oquirrh Hills Middle School shown, peer tutors there work with students with special needs...

Amanda Dickson

Dickson: The magic of peer tutors in middle school

Peer tutors are students of the same age in the same school who work one-on-one with students with special needs in their school.

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

silhouette of a family looking over a lake with a bird in the top corner flying...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

8 Fun Activities To Do in Bear Lake Without Getting in the Water

Bear Lake offers plenty of activities for the whole family to enjoy without having to get in the water. Catch 8 of our favorite activities.

Wellsville Mountains in the spring with a pond in the foreground...

Wasatch Property Management

Advantages of Renting Over Owning a Home

Renting allows you to enjoy luxury amenities and low maintenance without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of owning a home.

Clouds over a red rock vista in Hurricane, Utah...

Wasatch Property Management

Why Southern Utah is a Retirement Paradise

Retirement in southern Utah offers plenty of cultural and recreational opportunities. Find out all that this region has to offer.

Normandy tries to keep alive ‘infinite gratitude’ for D-Day