D-Day’s 77th Anniversary – June 6, 1944

 

Future Memorial site at Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy.
Church tower and stained glass windows pay tribute to American paratroopers
who jumped into the first town liberated during WWII, June 6, 1944

 

A Family Remembers Liberation:  Saint-Mere-Eglise, 1944

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, a man knocked loudly on the door of Alexandre Renaud, Mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église.  Since the town’s occupation by the enemy in 1940 there had been a strict curfew. This late night visit could only mean an emergency.

The visitor explained rapidly that a house just off the main square was on fire. There were frequent air-raids in the area in 1944 and it was not unusual for fires to start.  They could not know this fire was probably caused by a flair set down by pathfinder aircraft  ahead of the D-Day invasion.

 

The burning house off the main square at Sainte Mere Eglise in the early morning, June 6,1944
Likely caused by a flair set down by pathfinder aircraft ahead of the D-Day invasion. This created problems for paratroopers landing and spotlighted to the Germans the approach landing of the America paratroopers.

 

A Normandy Family

Alexandre was a veteran from WWI and the town pharmacist who just two weeks before had taken on the questionable privilege of mayor in occupied Normandy.  He rushed out into the square to view the fire.  The Germans agreed to lower the curfew and soldiers with machine guns watched as locals formed a chain to ferry buckets of water from the town pump to the burning house.

Church bells rang, calling across the countryside for help but their efforts made little difference.  The blaze lit up nearby buildings and the church as they worked, then an incredible noise filled the night air.

Paratroopers

“Just at that moment,” Alexandre recalled in his war memoir “Sainte-Mère-Église,“ a large transport plane with all lights ablaze flew right over the tree-tops, followed immediately by others and yet others. They came from the west in great waves, almost silent, their giant shadows covering the earth.  Suddenly, what looked like huge confetti dropped from their fuselages and fell quickly to earth.  Paratroopers!”

His wife Simone and children, in their home above the pharmacy were now all wide awake.  Younger son Henri-Jean recalled that shooting outside were guns. My brother and I tried to look out the window but our mother screamed, ‘no, no!’ and pulled us back as we all knelt and prayed.”

Alexandre hurried back to his family. There had been rumors of a long-awaited invasion in Northern France but they expected the Allies to send small reconnaissance missions to scout out the area first.  With huge excitement, Alexandre told his family “It’s too many! It’s not commandos. It’s the liberation!”               

 

Inside the Airborne Museum at Sainte Mere Eglise, a 1944 plane.

 

Alexandre’s Children

The family headed out to a ditch away from the houses and fighting.  Paul Renaud was 14 years old, Henri-Jean was 10.  Henri-Jean recalled “I could see them, the soldiers, coming down in the night. We heard shouting but we were not afraid, my brother and I, as we were excited the Americans were coming.  Then a big shell exploded near the house and I couldn’t see my parents and started to cry.”

It was 1.30 am in the morning of 6 June 1944.

The burning house was a catastrophe for the men of the 82nd Airborne division, parachuting in and around Sainte-Mère-Église.  Well lit, some were easy targets for the soldiers already on the ground.  With little control over their parachutes, some were sucked into the fire.  Many were caught up in trees and utility poles, unable to free themselves before they were found and killed by the enemy.

But as more and more Allied soldiers fought in the streets of Sainte-Mère-Église, the hundred or so enemy realized they were outnumbered and fell back out of town.

 

Medical equipment 1944
Airborne Museum, Sainte Mere Eglise

 

Liberation

By 4.30am, while terrified families hid in the fields and in basements, the Third Battalion, 505th Regiment, 82nd Airborne forced the last few Germans out and LTC Edward C. Krause raised his unit’s colors in front of the town hall.

The Shock of Freedom

In the early morning light, Paul accompanied his father as he went out to greet their liberators.  “My father told me I was big enough to come with him and we crossed the square.  I saw my first bodies there. That of a German soldier and, at ten meters, that of an American paratrooper who held a small Bible in his hand. This image marked me.”

Henri-Jean was with his father when he saw “a paratrooper hanging from a tree. I had never seen a dead man before and I touched his boot. He began to turn around slowly in the air.”  And later “There was a German on the ground, but no blood.  It was the first time I saw one dead.  Then I saw several paratroopers killed, one of them had no equipment or shoes or helmet, as he had been robbed by the Germans.

 

Alexandre Renaud, Mayor, on the left with a Paratrooper and U.S. Priest L. Roulland,

 

A Friend and a Memory Made

Later that shell shocked morning, Paul passed an American soldier, resting on a bench. The soldier called him over. “He beckoned to me to approach and pulled a bundle of chewing gum out of his pocket, offering me one.  I did not know what it was and was about to swallow it, when he explained to me, by gestures, that it was necessary to chew it.”

It was not peaceful for long.  Later on 6 June the Germans launched a heavy attack that lasted two terrible days.

No Hiding from Danger

Families stayed out in the fields and woods, the Renauds’ in their ditch. The local butcher’s family joined them and Henri remembers moving up along the ditch to make room as gun fire filled the air.  Henri recalled “We made room for them and the next day, the butcher’s wife was killed by a shell just where I was the day before”.

By the afternoon of 7 June reinforcements arrived; tanks from nearby Utah Beach.  The town was secured for the Allies by then. The people of Sainte-Mère-Église would never forget their liberation, or that the Allied paratroopers stayed on as the Germans tried to take back the town.

Henri-Jean later said “If the Germans had succeeded, they would have destroyed the whole town and killed everyone. Thank God, these guys succeeded in stopping them. The feeling of the people here is so strong because of that.”  

 

After liberation, a paratrooper tries Normandy cider. The two boys are Henri-Jean and Paul Renaud. 
Mr. Simon on the left is behind his son Michel lighting a cigarette.  On the right is Mrs. Simon and her daughter.
Photo taken on 7 or 8 June 1944.

 

A Different Sort of Childhood

While Alexandre and the adults of the town worked to rebuild, the children of Sainte-Mère-Église remember that June as a time of treasures after years of deprivation.  They scoured the countryside and brought home what they found, the detritus of two armies; machine guns, radios, helmets, bayonets, caps, badges, brown packages provisions, strange medicines.  Crashed gliders nosed through hedges and spread across fields. Parachutes became shrouds for the dead and dresses for girls and their mothers.    

 

A Thompson M1A1 Submachine gun, on exhibition in the Airborne Museum, Sainte-Mère-Église

 

Towns around them spent days and sometimes weeks lurching between Allies and enemies so liberated Sainte-Mère-Église became an Allied headquarters. Perhaps nowhere was more aware of the cost of liberation.  Together with Bolsville, it was also the site of temporary war graves for around 13,000 soldiers killed so far from home.  Until the end of her life Simone Renaud, who tended the temporary graves with love and flowers, wrote to families who could not afford to visit their dead sons and husbands.  There is still a strong bond between Sainte-Mère-Église and the Allied countries that will never be broken.

 

Memorial window in Sainte-Mere-Eglise church designed by Paul Renaud. A young man’s gratitude preserved in glass,

 

A Fitting Memorial

A medieval church stands at the centre of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and took the brunt of battle, its windows destroyed.  It was agreed the new window should be a memorial and a symbol of the town’s thanks to their Liberators.  Paul Renaud was now 16 and a skilled artist.  Looking back at drawings he made of the night that changed all their lives, he designed a potent image.  It recalled the courage and sacrifice that freed them, and the power of the faith that helped the town endure.  

 

Detail of Paul Renaud and Gabriel Loire’s window in Sainte Mere Eglise, depicting American Parachutist.

 

Gabriel Loire from Chartres made Paul’s window and it is possibly the most compelling memorial in this town of memorials.  The Virgin Mary stands peaceful, holding the infant Jesus as around her paratroopers fall to the ground, their welcome well known.

A second window was donated on the 25th anniversary of D-Day by veterans of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, in 1972.  Made again by Gabriel, it is of Saint Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers.    

 

Memorial window Sainte-Mere-Eglise church at Normandy.
Donated by the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division
Depiction of the Patron Saint of paratroopers.

 

Today

Sainte-Mère-Église is a vibrant memorial to liberation.  The new Airborne Museum, built on the site of the burning house, gives visitors a good understanding of D-Day history and includes many personal stories of great bravery and humanity.  In the town, the flags of France and the Allies are always flying.

Every year there are celebrations, parachute drops, parties and enactments to remember the liberation.  Over the last 70 years the Renaud family have been involved in keeping the memory of liberation alive. Copies of Alexandre’s book ‘Sainte-Mère-Église’ can still be bought second hand online.  Paul Renaud never lost his love of American chewing gum.

 

Airborne Museum at Sainte-Mere-Eglise

 

A few miles from the Normandy landing beaches, the Airborne Museum has become the largest museum in Europe dedicated to the American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne engaged in the context of the Normandy invasion in 1944, during the Second World Word.

Credit:  Normandy Then and Now

 

American Greatness    

American GIs in First Wave Boats at Normandy, June 6,1944.
They would suffer major casualties from drowning or German gunfire from above them.

 

Airborne paratroopers dropped in mass outside Saint Mere Eglise
June 6,1944

 

RMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in New York with returning US Servicemen in 1945.
Finally WWII is over

 

 

In Eternal Reverence and Gratitude

Then and Now

For Your Service and Sacrifice on Behalf of Freedom

—————————

God Bless America

 

About Karen Evans

Advocate For Honoring Military Service
This entry was posted in American History, American Veterans and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to D-Day’s 77th Anniversary – June 6, 1944

  1. Pingback: D-Day’s 77th Anniversary – June 6, 1944 — Tribute to Veterans - Jakhala.com

  2. GP says:

    I’m speechless, Karen! An outstanding post!

    • Karen Evans says:

      Thanks, GP. It’s a different perspective, isn’t it, from the French who witnessed their own rescue by American forces. I’m forever amazed and proud of our military troops in action.

  3. Karen Evans says:

    I am humbled and pleased by that…thank you!

  4. Prior... says:

    This is such a good post and I would like to someday visit the Airborne Museum

    • Karen Evans says:

      Thank you for your kind words and visit. I would like to see it also at a point in time. There are so many shrines to our history that are memorable to experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s