SAINTE-MÈRE-ÉGLISE, France – As American service members prepare for events to commemorate the 68th anniversary of the D-Day landing, there are many opportunities to better understand the legacy of valor that stems from the hedgerows and beaches of Normandy.
Sainte-Mère-Eglise is a Mecca of sorts for paratroopers. Normandy’s battlefields are part of the culture at Fort Bragg, N.C., where the 82nd Airborne Division calls home, said U.S. Army Spc. Benjamin Thompson of Houston, Texas. For paratroopers today, jumping into Normandy is the greatest privilege, Thompson said.
“It goes back to the time where it all started,” Thompson said. “To be a part of this is tradition, it’s a really big honor.”
Shopping for souvenirs along Rue du Général de Gaulle, Sgt. Stephanie Cortez, a 25-year-old parachute rigger from Olympia, Wash., looked up at the church in the town square where a replica of Pvt. John Steele hangs by a parachute from the tower. Some of the fiercest fighting of the invasion took place here.
Cortez, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq, is now part of the Kaiserslautern, Germany-based 5th Quartermaster Detachment – one of the several airborne units taking part in this year’s commemorative jump. She couldn’t help but think about the 82nd paratroopers who landed in Sainte-Mère-Eglise in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 to secure roads and bridges for troops landing at nearby Utah Beach.
“They came here knowing they were probably not going home and see their families,” Cortez said. “Walking up and down these streets, I can almost feel what they felt. You try to envision things that happened. You come up with your own paradoxes, but you still don’t know.”
During the first week of June, service members from U.S. European Command join stateside Army and Air Force personnel to take part in several ceremonies to honor those who fought to liberate France nearly seven decades ago. The town’s population swells with troops and tourists. History buffs don WII uniforms and drive though town in Willys Jeeps and old Army trucks. On June 3, nearly 400 paratroopers – to include several from the U.K. and other allied nations – will drop onto the marshes near the La Fiere bridge
Months ahead of time, riggers from the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team packed parachutes and shipped them in sealed containers to France. A contingent of “Sky Soldiers,” as they are known, are also in Sainte-Mère-Eglise to support the airborne drop. One of them, Spc. Demetri Martin, 20, Chicago, served in the Army less than 2 years and was amazed has his good fortune, he said.
“Never in my life did I think I’d be here in France,” Martin said “To be jumping in on D-Day is a great opportunity. I feel blessed.”
Planning began six months ago, said Joseph Leprieur, Sainte-Mère-Eglise’s town manager. Once a small farming village, now more than 300,000 tourists visit each year, he said. On Friday, local families invited troops for a meal, he said.
“For Sainte-Mère-Eglise, it’s a big thing to have the Americans visit every year,” Leprieur said. “It’s something we are waiting for.”
Most troops stay on cots in a gymnasium not far from the town’s main square. One officer said, “It’s not too bad, just a basketball court filled with cots – 300 of your closest friends just 18 inches away from you.”
Breakfast and supper are catered, but lunch is an Army ration – MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. Many U.S. troops instead found their ways to the local cafés and brasseries to sample French cuisine.
Meanwhile, many U.S. military veterans and service members on vacation are also taking in the sites.
Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Heller and Petty Officer 2nd Class Anna Barrios, both U.S. Navy Reservists from New Jersey, visited Pointe du Hoc, where the 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled hundred foot beach cliffs under heavy German fire to take out an enemy artillery position. Rangers fought for two days there, with just 90 of the originally 225 troops left standing. Earlier, the rows of white crosses at the nearby American cemetery brought Heller to tears, he said.
“It’s important for us as Americans to realize what our sacrifices were, said Heller, who recently served in Afghanistan. “It’s amazing to see what they went through. It takes your breath away.”
Bob Haist, of Kennedyville, Md. Served with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam. Back home, he’s friends with three WII veterans who landed on Normandy’s beaches after D-Day. His visit to Pointe du Hoc honors his friends and those died nearby, he said.
“I’m proud to be where they walked,” Haist said. “My three friends deserve for us to never forget what they did.”