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Keeping Alive Memory of War's Longest Day

60 years after D-day, surviving townspeople and veterans seek to ensure that the lessons of the deadly conflict are not forgotten.

June 06, 2004|John Leicester | Associated Press Writer

LISIEUX, France — The remembrance evening started with a head count: How many in the hall experienced the 1944 liberation of France? Of 400 people, barely three dozen hands went up.

"There aren't many of us, are there?" said a hushed voice in the crowd.

In Lisieux, as in other Normandy towns that took the brunt of the D-day invasion 60 years ago, the dwindling number of townspeople who experienced it are rushing to preserve their memories in a world transformed.

For some, a German leader for the first time joining the VIPs at June 6 commemorations in Normandy will be jarring. Others will find it heartening -- a symbol of a peaceful, united Europe risen from the ashes of World War II.

The Cold War's end will be highlighted by the first-time attendance of a Russian leader, President Vladimir V. Putin, while the present-day realities of Iraq mean that President Bush may be among the less popular VIPs, even though his country led the liberation of France.

The passing of the World War II generation is the inescapable backdrop to commemorations underway for the 60th anniversary of D-day -- the epic June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of occupied France that pierced Adolf Hitler's western defenses. Caught between Soviet forces in the east and the Allied push from the west, Nazi Germany surrendered 11 months later.

For many, this will be the last major D-day anniversary they experience.

"We're all getting old," said Michael Accordino, who was 20 when he landed with the first waves of troops on murderous Omaha Beach with Company A of the U.S. Army's 299th Engineer Combat Battalion. He's 80 now, and uncertain how many of his former comrades remain -- "For a while there, we were losing 10 or 15 a year," he said by telephone from his home in Buffalo, N.Y. He's coming to France for the anniversary.

This year's commemorations are aimed in part at passing on the torch of memory. Many are working to ensure that the heroes, killers and lessons of the deadliest modern war are not forgotten.

There are memorial marches, plaque unveilings, wreath layings, dances, concerts, fireworks displays. One guidebook of Normandy commemorations covers 94 pages. Schools are organizing museum trips, exhibitions and D-day study projects, and enlisting French Resistance veterans to talk to students.

Moviegoers may remember the ecstatic Frenchman in his nightgown in Hollywood's 1962 "The Longest Day" who cheered, "It's the invasion! They're coming!" as the Allied armada rained shells on his cottage.

But accounts from elderly survivors -- from interviews and from some of the many new books marking the anniversary -- are more nuanced, putting greater emphasis on the destruction suffered by Normandy towns from Allied bombing and shelling to soften up German defenses.

Lisieux alone lost 1,200 of its 16,000 people, with an additional 12,000 made homeless, according to Normandy's Caen Memorial museum, and the pain was still evident among the crowd packing the town's Victor Hugo hall.

Retired history teacher Jean-Denis Gautie was 9 when the Allies invaded. "Sixty years later, I still have a tight ball in my chest thinking of those planes," he told the audience.

Until D-day, Lisieux had escaped the worst of the war, and when Allied bombers would fly overhead, "we felt satisfied -- that 'it's for the Germans,' " he said. "Because we had not been bombed, we had concluded that we wouldn't be and that we were invulnerable."

Said Andree Plassart, 81: "I was very, very, very rude to the first American who arrived.... He didn't seem touched by the lives of the people who had been killed."

Marceau Grandin, who was 12 in 1944, stood up to say that he had never understood "the strategic interest of crushing a town like Lisieux when we know that entire German convoys drove around it on country roads."

Still, he added, "that doesn't dim the thanks in my heart for the soldiers who died for our liberation."

This year's events are also colored by the war in Iraq.

"The Americans came here and won, so we understand that they want to do that elsewhere," said Father Rene-Denis Lemaigre, a priest in Lisieux. "But at the same time, my personal opinion is that is not how problems can be solved in the 21st century."

But this debate doesn't diminish the heartfelt reception that American veterans and others can expect in Normandy.

"Welcome to our liberators," says a sign in a Lisieux bistro window.

When a call went out to households to lodge 110 visiting veterans, some 750 responded.

"People phone every day," said Claire Thomine of Normandy's welcoming committee. "Families are delighted to be able to put veterans up and even disappointed if there's no one for them."

In Normandy, cold gravestones in silent cemeteries are reminders of conflict's costs. In the St. Desir cemetery outside Lisieux lie 3,735 Germans. The unknown among them are remembered with brown stone crosses saying simply "Ein Deutscher Soldat" -- a German soldier.

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