Bernard Dargols left France in his teens and came back to fight under the American flag. Odile Bouyssou hid for days among the trees in the countryside, until smiling Americans arrived with chocolate and chewing gum. And Jean-Marie Girault worked under U.S. bombardment, pulling from the rubble the living and the dead.
Now in their seventies and eighties, the three are survivors of D-Day, June 6, 1944, members of a dwindling group of witnesses and participants who can still vividly recount what remains the largest military operation in history -- Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in German-occupied France.
They have put their memories down in books or simple typewritten pages, some with photographs. They have mementos, deeply treasured, of the time -- U.S. Army dog tags, yellowing maps of the coast, a flier dropped from an Allied plane telling civilians to disperse, an Army helmet picked up by a road, pierced by a bullet on one side.
The war in Iraq has deeply strained France's relations with the United States. The number of American visitors to France has fallen. Yet in Normandy and among French people everywhere who are old enough to remember D-Day, the typical feeling toward the United States is one of lasting gratitude, coupled with deep affection.
"I was always grateful to the Americans for liberating us, even though we were the victims of their bombs," said Bouyssou, whose home town, Coutances, was 80 percent demolished in the Allied bombardment of Normandy. "I love America."
After the war, her mother kept a photograph taped above the family telephone. It showed an anonymous soldier's grave at the U.S. military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, on the Normandy coast. In the margin of the picture, her mother had written: "So that we shall never forget."
Still, even here people draw the line at support for the Iraq war, or for President Bush.
"I was ill at ease," said Bouyssou, "because I didn't see why such a war should be launched. Having lived through that war, I am against any war."
Preparing for the Invasion
Bernard Dargols, born in Paris in 1920, was the son of a Russian Jewish emigre who imported industrial sewing machines to Paris's Jewish quarter. Father wanted son to learn the family business and informed him he would go to America for that purpose. Dargols, already enamored of America through films, recalls literally jumping with joy at the news. "My dream was Fred Astaire, Will Rogers, Ginger Rogers," he said.
He was in New York when German forces invaded France in 1940. He went to the offices of Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces and was told he could be immediately dispatched to London as an officer. But he was so taken by New York and the United States that he needed only a little prodding from his American friends to enlist instead in the U.S. Army. He did, and immediately became a U.S. citizen.
As a native French speaker, Dargols was made a military intelligence interpreter. In role-playing in Wales before the Normandy landing, he was cast as a French civilian, so that Americans trained in French could practice how to get information from villagers on German positions and the location of land mines.
Everyone knew the Allies would land in France; the only questions were where and when. Waiting at a camp in Britain in 1944, Dargols suspected the countdown had begun when mail stopped arriving at the camp, and became more certain when the food suddenly improved, with the addition of fresh vegetables and meat.
On June 5, at Cardiff, Wales, he boarded a ship with members of the American 2nd Infantry Division. The invasion was about to begin.
Odile Bouyssou also knew, like everyone in France, that the Allies were coming. But she never dreamed it would be on June 6, and certainly not in Normandy. Calais, the closest point to England across the channel, was considered the most likely landing site. "We never thought we would become such an important place," she said.
On June 5, 1944, the only thing Bouyssou was thinking about was taking an exam. She was 16, and she wanted to become a teacher. The exam for admission to teaching school was scheduled for June 6, in St.-Lo, near Coutances. So she said goodbye to her parents in Coutances, took the train to St.-Lo and checked into the hotel room her mother had booked in the center of town.
She did have one warning that something might happen. Just a few nights before, while still at home in Coutances, she had been awakened by the sound of German boots on the staircase. The soldiers briefly arrested her father for refusing orders for able-bodied men to help plant "Rommel's asparagus," spiked wooden poles devised by German Gen. Erwin Rommel to ward off paratroopers.
Still, an invasion was far from Bouyssou's mind the night of June 5, when she heard a thunderous noise coming from the north. "The English have landed!" someone shouted. She remembered a local joke: When pigs start to fly, the Allies will land. She went back to sleep, worried about her exam the next day.
Jean-Marie Girault had a feeling. He couldn't quite describe it, except that something "heavy" hung in the air. It was June 5.
He was 18 and had just finished high school at the Lycee Malherbe in downtown Caen. He had volunteered to help the local Red Cross care for the victims of the Allies' periodic bombardment of the city.
One of his teachers, a member of the French resistance, told him of intercepted German radio signals warning of a possible Allied assault. Girault looked outside. "The city was calm," he said, "but not really." Then at midnight, planes appeared overhead, in formation -- so many planes, they seemed to block out the sky. Then the bombardment began.
For many of the tens of thousands of American, British and other Allied soldiers on transport ships, the journey across the storm-tossed English Channel was a queasy time. Dargols was lucky; he never got seasick. Instead, as the interpreter on his ship, he spent the time at sea answering the U.S. soldiers' many questions. How far is Bordeaux? Is the milk in France pasteurized or homogenized? Are the girls pretty?
He advised the GIs not to say that the Allies were "invading" France. It was more polite to say they were "landing" there.
He was worried. He could see hundreds of ships like his own making the journey. He wondered how the Allies could possibly reach the beach. The Germans must surely see this armada coming.
Welcoming the Liberators
Odile Bouyssou didn't take her exam. The exam center was closed. There were no telephones, no trains and no way to return to her family. Another girl took her home for dinner, and there they heard planes overhead. They raced outside and waved hello to their liberators, until someone from the family shouted, "Run!"
It was 8 p.m. and the bombing of St.-Lo had begun.
Bouyssou spent the next three weeks hiding in the countryside with other refugees, separated from her family. There were a few cows for milk and wells for water, but little to eat and not enough clothing for the chilly night air.
She tried walking back to Coutances, passing the bodies of dead German soldiers in a ditch. At one point, her group was stopped by German soldiers who had survived the Allies' weapons. One of them opened Bouyssou's school bag and found a book for studying English, with a map of England, and accused her of being a spy. She was briefly detained, then freed.
The first American she saw came riding in atop a tank, ahead of a long line of open-back trucks. The soldier's face was smeared with what looked like black grease, and he had a broad smile. She and the children grabbed wildflowers and cherries from the fields and tossed them at the procession. The Americans tossed back chocolate, chewing gum and cigarettes. "It was wonderful," she said, growing misty-eyed at the memory. "We hadn't seen chocolate for years!"
She eventually rejoined her family and found their house damaged but still standing. But most of the town of Coutances had been destroyed by the bombing. Among the official count of 380 dead and missing in the town were two teenage girls with whom she used to play.
Bernard Dargols didn't go ashore on D-Day. He floated off the coast for two more days, then landed in the center of Omaha Beach, in a sector known as Easy Red. In the midst of a U.S. naval bombardment of German positions, he had another surprise: He and the other troops had to climb down the side of the ship on rope ladders, something they had not trained for in Wales.
His job was interpreting, but in those first few days on the beach, there was very little interpreting to do. Allied planes had dropped leaflets warning civilians to leave the coast, and many had obeyed.
The first French civilian he encountered was a farmer in Formigny, who was startled to hear a soldier in an American uniform speaking to him in French.
"Is this the Free French landing?" the farmer asked. Dargols replied: "It's the Americans. This is the real invasion."
Wearing a white hard hat with the Red Cross emblem, Jean-Marie Girault joined others in Caen who were pulling bodies from the wreckage of buildings destroyed by the bombing. Sometimes they were alive, he recalled, and sometimes he recovered remains. His high school had been turned into a makeshift emergency center.
He was also sent into the countryside, to search for animals that the townspeople might use for food. "It's extraordinary, how people can live and work under the bombardment," recalled Girault, who later became Caen's mayor and opened a war memorial and museum in the city. "It's true that bombs were falling in the streets. But we were not afraid." He added, "My adolescence was ruined. I discovered my adulthood."
Antiwar, Not Anti-American
Citing their experiences and memories of the destruction of their towns and villages, many of Normandy's older residents say they are opposed to war in general. But their opposition to the fighting in Iraq does not translate into the anti-Americanism that is so often heard elsewhere in France.
"What's happening now in Iraq, the torture and the rest of it -- that doesn't change anything about the American image," Girault said. "For me, that is not the American spirit."
Dargols was more blunt. "Before even the Iraq war started, I was ashamed and amazed by the anti-American feeling of the French," he said. "They always want to be at the head of countries that want to go against the States. They forget that if it wasn't for the Americans in 1917 and 1944, they'd probably be speaking German now, all of them."
Dargols said he believes that in Iraq, the United States has forgotten some of the lessons of D-Day. "I thought there would be [many] military intelligence people who speak the Arabic language," the wartime interpreter said.
"What a mistake he made," Dargols said, referring to Bush. "And look at the huge mess we're in now."