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Normandy Still Holds Many Memories for D-Day Survivors - 2004-06-03

Sixty years ago, in the early-morning hours, tens of thousands of soldiers - American and British - waded to the shores of Normandy, France, in an operation that changed the course of World War II. Known today simply as D-Day, this invasion began to loosen Germany's grip on France. Despite their ultimate triumph, thousands of these fighters died that day. They are being honored this coming weekend, as they are every year where they rest, in Normandy itself. President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac and even German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will be on hand. But this coast of France holds much more intimate memories for the men who fought here 60 years ago, as VOA's Keming Kuo discovered when he visited Normandy.

As I stood on the cliffs overlooking the ocean and the beach filled with sunbathers and vacationers, I found it difficult to fathom the violence and horror of June 6, 1944 - D-Day. Nearly 10,000 Americans died as 150,000 American and British soldiers stormed the beaches under intense gunfire.

Most are buried in the American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer. The peacefulness of the cemetery is in stark contrast to its origins. Nothing quite prepares you for the rows upon rows of white crosses and Stars of David reaching as far as the eye can see toward the English Channel.

To be exact, 9,387 of them.

While this cemetery and surrounding areas play host to dignitaries, it is always open to the veterans who fought that day - and left friends behind on the beach. Men like Ronald Hearst of Evanston, Illinois.

"All along this area here on the coast - this is Omaha Beach we're on - all along from east to west the Germans had 10 strong points," he explained. "We are standing on number 62. To put it in perspective, they were numbered from 60 to 72. So we're here on 62. I landed further to the east by number 60. I landed by air and wasn't supposed to come in on D-Day. I was supposed to come in on D plus-three. But you know how these things happen. I came in on D-Day and said, 'Ma, what am I doing here?' ? I don't like to relive it."

Mr. Hearst paused, and with eyes tearing up, told me he does not like to describe the details of his D-Day experiences. People who don't have such personal memories can see remnants of the historic battle: German bunkers and areas pockmarked with huge bomb craters. Or, just stroll the quiet streets of nearby Ste. Mere Eglise. It was the first French village to be liberated on D-Day - and the place that gave Allied forces a foothold to take Europe back from Germany.

Today, the World War II beaches are like many others in northern Europe, with families playing, sunbathing and strolling - some walking their beloved dogs. Besides a visit to the American Cemetery, many tourists go to the large, Smithsonian-like museum in the nearby city of Caen. Or they stop to see the remnants of German bunkers and areas pockmarked with huge craters caused by bombs, still left unfilled.

The rest of Normandy today looks like rural farmland found in much of Western Europe or the United States: rolling, green hills and farm plots -- along with signs of modern commercialism and tourism. But in some of the smaller towns, a visitor can get a clearer sense of what D-Day was like. And how French residents still speak of the bravery of American and other Allied soldiers that saved their towns from Nazi Germany.

The memory of that day still seems fresh in the minds of many who live here. And the memories are kept alive near the town square at the beautiful Gothic cathedral. Every day, you can see a life-sized replica of one of the thousands of American paratroopers who jumped on D-Day. It hangs from the church spire. Sixty years ago, John Steele's parachute actually caught on the steeple and left him dangling there until he was rescued.

A block from the Church is the Airborne Museum, which houses an assortment of D-Day memorabilia, including one of the few American Waco gliders still in existence.

The museum was created by D-Day Army veteran Philippe Jutras, who died just two months shy of this 60th anniversary of D-day. Jean d'Aigneaux, president of the Airborne Museum, still mourns Mr. Jutras' passing. Ste. Mere' Eglise is perhaps best known because of the classic 1962 film The Longest Day, which shows American troops flying, gliding and parachuting into the town during the start of D-Day.

On the June 5, the 82nd and 101st divisions have one last hot meal, and are visited by a concerned General Eisenhower. Eventual losses could near the 50 percent mark.

At the Airborne Museum in Ste. Mere Eglise, a film explains the town's strategic position in Normandy at D-Day, as one of the first Allied footholds on the European continent. The museum personalizes the history of D-Day through the experiences of soldiers and townspeople alike. "Religious services are held. It's impossible to know what prayers are said. But some soldiers put their ideas to words that day," explained the guide. "On Army correspondence, one soldier wrote: 'If I don't come out of this thing, I want my people - especially my father- to know that I gave every ounce of my strength and energy for what I'm fighting for. Be it stated that I'm not entering this with a blind trust in God, but what I consider to be equally or more important -faith in myself or my fellow men.' "

More than 40,000 U.S. Army paratroopers jumped from large aircraft. Each of them carried 40 to 50 kilos of equipment. "And 2,969 men would closely follow them in gliders - fragile wooden structures stretched with canvas, upon which many men would perish during chaotic landings," the guide explained.

Eugene Levine was an Army combat weather observer?and one of the lucky ones on those gliders. He says the sight of thousands of gliders, planes and parachutes in the skies above the town must have been astonishing.

"We landed 10 miles [16 kilometers] beyond the beach right near the village of Ste. Mere Eglise," he said.

I spoke with Eugene Levine at the dedication of the New World War II Memorial last weekend, in Washington, D.C. "It was kind of fun, like a kite floating in the air. What I liked about it was that it was so quiet; you didn't hear a sound," he said.

But the silence Mr. Levine experienced floating above Ste. Mere' Eglise was in sharp contrast with what took place on the ground.

"The night of the fifth of June, 1944, tremendous flames are flickering in the sky above Ste. Mere Eglise," he remembered. "The residents have been yanked out of bed by a fire at the entrance of Fort Park - the current site of the museum. This emergency is quickly forgotten, as a stunning choreography of airplanes suddenly fills the night sky. Clusters of paratroopers are being dropped into the dark of night. Their silhouettes could be seen against the fires below. The machine gun on the steeple begins to rattle."

The Germans ordered the civilians to return to their homes. Some Ste. Mere Eglise residents then met the first soldiers of the landing: Americans, much to their surprise, and not the long-awaited English. The Germans would soon leave Ste. Mere, and the town was free. The sight of thousands of gliders, planes and parachutes in the skies above the town in the early-morning light must have been astonishing, as Eugene Levine recalls.

The glider missions did a lot of damage but it was because they caused confusion. The Germans saw these things flying out of the planes and didn't know what the heck. And the landings were so scattered, the Germans didn't know what to do - we were in front of them, in back of them. We landed ten miles [16 kilometers] beyond the beach, right near the village of Ste. Mere Eglise.

Following the successful liberation of Ste. Mere Eglise, the townspeople developed a strong bond with the American troops - a feeling that endures.

"We exchanged our first words with the Americans. We were deeply moved by the commitment of these young men, some of whom met death without seeing combat - the unfortunate ones who landed in the marsh and drowned, tangled in the weight of their own equipment. Others were wounded, agonizing for hours in silence so as to not betray their mission by revealing their presence," remembered one local.

On a lighter note, Mr. Levine recalls the region's prized apple brandy, called Calvados. and how a wartime brew of the drink had a strange aftertaste. "When I went back [to Normandy] for the 50th anniversary of D-Day celebration, the French awarded us a medal and then had a reception afterwards in Caen, where they served Calvados," he recalled. "It was much better Calvados than I remembered [during the War]. We stored it in gasoline cans; we went to farm houses and bought five gallon jerry-cans of Calvados. We had no facilities for cleaning out the cans, so they had the taste of gasoline."

The local population is intrigued by all things American, discovering new products and materials. The warm attitude of the soldiers and the bonds formed by the population have left a little corner of America in Ste. Mere forever.

And on this 60th anniversary of D-Day, such warm memories of Ste. Mere Eglise and other towns of Normandy will be mixed with sadness - and the sense that this commemoration will probably be the last significant one for most D-Day veterans, including Ronald Hearst.

"I'm 80 years of age. I came in with a mini-unit - I'd rather not mention the number - there were 23 of us," he said. "And as of today, there are two of us alive. Not killed in the war, don't misunderstand me, but by the process of attrition. I have three [fellow soldiers] buried here in the American Cemetery. They don't talk much to me, but I talk an awful lot to them. "