Story and photo by Hugh C. McBride, Task Force Normandy 60 Public Affairs
STE. MERE-EGLISE, FRANCE (June 5, 2004) – In a world of uncertainty, one constant remains sacrosanct: Ste. Mere-Eglise loves its liberators.
Six decades after the D-Day invasion started in the pre-dawn skies over this small village near the Normandy coast of France, tens of thousands of celebrators packed the narrow streets of Ste. Mere-Eglise to commemorate the onset of Operation Overlord and to once again thank the men who rid the region of its Nazi occupiers.
“I’ve never seen such appreciation for America,” said retired Army Col. Albert Wells, whose father, Bud Wells, trained fighter pilots during the war.
Wells was one of the thousands who filled the square around the town’s historic church, where paratrooper John Steele hung for more than two hours over German-patrolled streets after snagging his chute on the steeple in the early hours of June 6, 1944.
Throughout the daylong celebration, bands played from a variety of stages (including a Dixieland sextet on the back of a World War II-era Army truck), military re-enactors mingled with their real-life counterparts, and couples literally danced in the streets of what on most days is a quiet village with an appreciation for its history.
But this, clearly, was not most days.
“It’s like the Fourth of July,” said Robert McAndrew, who said he was in Normandy to fulfill a promise to his late father, WW II Veteran Richard B. McAndrew. “I told him that if he didn’t live to be here … I would represent him at the 60th.”
Also paying prominent homage to their forbears were the 602 U.S. airborne forces who parachuted onto a drop zone near the “Iron Mike” memorial on the outskirts of town. The paratroopers (including members of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions, which led the 1944 assault) descended upon the region in a series of drops from C-130 Globemaster and C-17 Starlifter aircraft, and then – still sporting their battle dress uniforms – merged into the crowd that was walking toward what one jumper termed the “sacred ground” of downtown Ste. Mere-Eglise.
“If you’re a paratrooper, you learn about this place from day one,” said Sgt. 1st Class Peter Crittenden, who drove from Stuttgart, Germany, with fellow members of the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) to participate in the jump. “This is the holiest of holies for the airborne,” he said.
Standing almost in the shadow of the steeple of which he had read and heard so much for so long was, Crittenden said “an overwhelming experience.” But the best part of being there, he said, was the opportunity to talk with the very men who pried this town from the iron grip of Nazi occupation.
“It’s all about the veterans here today,” Crittenden said. “This is their day.”
One look around Ste. Mere-Eglise was all it took to verify that statement.
Wending one’s way through the throngs of celebrators was difficult, but getting near a veteran verged on the impossible. Ringed by well-wishers wherever they went, the veterans signed autographs, posed for photographs, and accepted the handshakes and hugs of well-wishers whose only desires were to get close enough to stay “thank you.”
“It’s beautiful to see such an international outpouring of support for these men,” said Mary Casey, whose father, Robert C. Casey, piloted a glider into the area on D-Day. Standing beside her father amid the adoring crowds of Ste. Mere-Eglise was, Casey said, “very moving indeed.”
Proving that “moving” has more than one meaning for a veteran in Normandy, John Roman spent much of the afternoon dancing in the street with his bride of 58 years, Jacqueline. Married on the second anniversary of D-Day – two years after John helped liberate Jacqueline’s home town – the
Romans return to the Normandy region nearly every year to celebrate their wedding day and remember those whose lives ended there.
“You feel the tears coming,” Roman said, yet as he shook hands with a steady stream of passing servicemembers and civilians – or twirled his wife at the end of another dance – it appeared to at least one onlooker as though this veteran’s means of acknowledging the sacrifices of his comrades-in-arms was to love the life that they had provided for him.
Watching her parents share a laugh with a group of passers-by, Jackie Thompson said they had earned not only their joy, but also the appreciation of those who followed.
However, like many of his generation, she said, her father appreciated but deflected what he felt was undue praise regarding his efforts while in uniform.
“He always said the ones who didn’t make it were the heroes,” she said.
Hero or not, as he twirled his wife and waltzed her into a street filled with servicemembers and civilians celebrating one of the great achievements of America’s “greatest generation,” Roman appeared to be as in love with Ste. Mere-Eglise as it was with him.