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French villagers retain memories of D-day

Andree Auvray of Sainte Mere Eglise, France, was 18 and nine months pregnant, hiding from the Germans in a ditch, in Normandy in June 1944 when three US soldiers appeared.

NICOLAS GARRIGA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Andree Auvray of Sainte Mere Eglise, France, was 18 and nine months pregnant, hiding from the Germans in a ditch, in Normandy in June 1944 when three US soldiers appeared.

SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE, France — Andree Auvray, nine months pregnant, was hiding from German bombings in a Normandy ditch with her husband one night in June 1944 when their dogs started barking. The shadows of three soldiers appeared.

“We both came out to see what was going on,’’ she recalls. She initially thought the men were the Nazi occupiers who had upended life in her quiet farming village. ‘‘And then I said ‘No, it’s not the Germans!’ ”

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The soldiers were Americans. D-day had begun.

Auvray relives that wrenching time with clarity and a growing sense of urgency. Seventy years have passed since the Allied invasion of Normandy helped turn the tide against Hitler. With their numbers rapidly diminishing, she and other French women and men who owe their freedom to D-day’s fighters are more determined than ever to keep alive the memory of the battle and its meaning.

As Normandy and other world leaders prepare to gather in Normandy this week to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle, French survivors are speaking to schools, conferences, tourists, and filmmakers about their experiences, and their gratitude.

That’s especially important to Auvray’s hometown of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first village liberated by the Allies after D-day.

About 15,000 paratroopers landed in and around the town after midnight on June 6, 1944, and seized it from the Germans at 4:30 a.m. An American flag went up outside the town hall.

During the drop, American paratrooper John Steele’s parachute got caught on the church spire. For two hours, Steele hung there, feigning death before being taken prisoner by the Germans. Today, a dummy paratrooper hangs from the spire in his honor.

Henri-Jean Renaud was an excitable 10-year-old the night the Americans landed, and his father was the town mayor.

‘‘Waves of planes came, paratroopers landed, and one hour later — after various events and fighting on the square between Germans and Americans — [my father] came back home,’’ Renaud recounts. ‘‘He was all excited, saying ‘There you go, it’s the [D-day] landing, it has finally happened!’ ’’

Renaud’s mother, who spoke fluent English, dedicated her life to honoring the American soldiers who gave their lives to free Sainte-Mere-Eglise, and stayed in touch with their families until her death.

After Life Magazine published a photo of her laying flowers on the Normandy grave of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr., eldest son of President Theodore Roosevelt, in August 1944, she received hundreds of letters from American families who had lost a relative during Operation Overlord, the code name for Allied invasion.

She would take a picture of a grave of an American soldier buried in Normandy, then write a letter, her son said. She would mail the photo, letter, and in summertime, a rose petal, to the soldier’s family.

She wanted to send them ‘‘something that people could touch,’’ Renaud said. ‘‘There is nothing more distressing than knowing that someone died somewhere, anywhere, without being able to tie it to an image.’’

Auvray also works to carry on the memory of World War II, doing conferences in schools.

Now 88, she describes sleeping in a trench at her farm night after night as a very pregnant 18-year-old, hoping that would keep her and her new husband safe from bombings. The night of June 6, she had a small suitcase holding baby clothes and essentials, in case she had to give birth out in the ditch.

‘‘I saw three shadows, three soldiers who were not making any noise,’’ she remembers.

Then she realized the rumors circulating about a possible Allied arrival were true.

She gave birth 13 days later, in her dining room.

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