In less than two weeks, more than a dozen world leaders and thousands of World War II veterans will pack the beaches and villages of northwestern France to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. On that 1944 day, allied troops landed in Normandy and launched the campaign that led to the end of the war in Europe.
Sixty years ago a 17-year-old boy named Eugčne Jouan watched American paratroopers march down a dark, country road, leaving a dewy field sprinkled with parachutes that town residents would later sew into clothes. The soldiers had landed in Mr. Jouan's hometown of Sainte-Mčre-Eglise in the pre-dawn hours of June 6, 1944, as part of an Allied campaign that would forever be remembered as "D-Day."
Today, Mr. Jouan is a retired, 77-year-old farmer with powerful forearms and a big stomach. He sits at his kitchen table in this small Normandy town recounting his personal tale of what happened on June 6, 1944. The long and bloody campaign that followed led to the liberation of France from Nazi occupation and ultimately the end of the war in Europe a year later.
The soldiers who parachuted into Sainte-Mčre-Eglise early that June morning were the first Americans Mr. Jouan had ever seen. Sainte-Mčre-Eglise's residents, he said, were expecting the British to free them from German occupation. Instead, it was the Americans who came.
Mr. Jouan's memories, and those of many other French World War II survivors, are again being dusted off as France prepares to host massive celebrations to commemorate D-Day's 60th anniversary. The barbecues, parachute drops, and nostalgic speeches planned for the June 6 event recall a different time in U.S.-French relations when American military action was welcomed.
Across Normandy's wide beaches and quaint villages, world leaders are expected to issue messages of peace and transatlantic cooperation, aimed, in part, at healing bitter differences over Iraq.
But in Normandy, U.S. flags still fly proudly alongside French, British, and Canadian ones over World War II cemeteries and memorials. And war survivors like Raymond Paris remember American soldiers as heroes.
Mr. Paris said he was a young notary clerk at the time of the allied invasion. On the night of June 5, he switched on his radio to listen to the nightly radio program by the French resistance, broadcast from England. He heard the sound of dice being tossed - the signal, he said, for the invasion. The Americans arrived just a few hours later - paratroopers dropping through the sky from low-flying planes.
German soldiers, who had occupied Sainte-Mčre-Eglise since 1940, traded fire with the U.S. paratroopers. But by dawn on June 6 the Germans had fled the village, an American flag was fluttering over the town hall and Sainte-Mčre-Eglise became the first French town liberated on D-Day.
The French will never forget, Mr. Paris said, that the Americans gave them their freedom from Nazi occupation.
Howard Manoian was one of those American paratroopers. Forty years after World War II - and after a career as a police officer in the United States - Mr. Manoian returned to live in Normandy. Today, sitting in his home, just four kilometers from Sainte-Mčre-Eglise, he recalls watching the last German soldiers flee town.
"I whispered to my guys. I says, 'Get ready. There are Germans coming down the road. They are on bicycles,'" he recalls. "Then I realize that they do not know we're there. So I whispered to my men, 'Do not start shooting at them unless they shoot first. They are leaving town. Let them go.'"
It took Howard Manoian two days, ducking gunfire from reassembled German forces, to get to the bridge he had been ordered to hold. His platoon kept moving, following the retreating Germans into Belgium and then on to Germany. In April 1945, Mr. Manoian was sent home. A few weeks later, the war in Europe was over.
But 60-years later, the scraps of D-Day memories remain, tucked into every corner of Sainte-Mčre-Eglise. Small anecdotes have been left at the gravestones in the town cemetery.
The church in the center of town still maintains a mannequin of a U.S. paratrooper hanging by his parachute from its steeple in homage to the American soldier who was left in that precarious position after being dropped in the wrong place during the invasion.
President Bush stopped into town in 2002, and honored those who had died in combat. Mr. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac are scheduled to meet in Paris just before the Normandy celebrations, in an effort to heal their differences over Iraq.
Jean-Michel Selles, who sells war memorabilia in Sainte-Mčre-Eglise, doubts the bitter divisions over the Iraq war will be healed anytime soon. It has been a while, he said, and France's esteem for the United States has faded.
But people in Sainte-Mčre-Eglise will always venerate World War II veterans like Howard Manoian, he says - and thank them for liberating them on D-Day.