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50 Years Later, Normandy Gets Set for 2nd Wave

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Allied invasion of Normandy, the largest amphibious assault in the history of modern warfare, his decision ultimately came down to a single factor: the weather forecast.

And now, 50 years later, as the people of Normandy prepare for the biggest peacetime assault on their narrow roads, picturesque villages and tiny cafes, they too are thinking about the weather. Once again, it may mean the difference between shining success and soggy disaster.

“If the sun is here, that will be the most important thing,” said Henri-Jean Renaud, 59, a pharmacist in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where gray-haired American paratroopers will reprise their jump of half a century ago. Outside, as he spoke, the sky was overcast.

“A French mess under the sun is great,” he said. “But with rain, it’s just a terrible mess.”

Rain or sunshine, though, (and one can usually count on the former) tens of thousands of World War II veterans, joined by President Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II and other heads of state and government, will converge on the bluffs, the villages, the homes and the cemeteries of northern France on June 6 to remember D-day--the bloody beginning of the end of World War II.

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Normandy is waiting with open arms. American, Canadian and British flags are pasted to the windows of butcher shops, bread stores, cheese shops, tea salons and cafes. Rows of foreign flags are flying from the cobblestone streets of Bayeux, where a new sculpture of Eisenhower is being put up on the edge of town. Signs everywhere, in French and English, read, “Welcome to the Liberators.”

D-day memorabilia are arriving at curio shops by the truckload. At the small food shops, of which France is justly proud, painted scenes of D-day soldiers on the beach stare out from the wrappers of Camembert cheese, Normandy’s favorite sons. The wine merchants are touting a nice little red from Buzet with the label, “Debarquement 1944" (Landing 1944).

Workers are busily repaving roads, repainting the white lines and building traffic circles. They are polishing monuments, cleaning the landing beaches, clipping the graveside grass, installing extra telephone lines and erecting towers for the television cameras.

Hotels, some of which have been booked solid for the day for the past 10 years, are adding porters and waiters for the onslaught.

Everyone expects the region to be utterly overwhelmed by the traffic and the crush of visitors. But no one seems too worried. Many see it as the last opportunity to show their gratitude.

“This one is the 50th, the last big one,” said Renaud, who is helping prepare his town’s welcome for the American paratroopers who rained from the sky on D-day and freed Sainte-Mere-Eglise from German occupation at 4:30 a.m. “These veterans are old now. Many of them will never come back. And they are all heroes to us.”

The official D-day extravaganza is June 6, and the national leaders, journalists and, of course, veterans will be moving from cliffs to beaches to towns and back again throughout the day for national and international ceremonies.

The highlight will be an afternoon gathering here on Omaha Beach, attended by 30,000 veterans and the leaders of the United States, France, Canada, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Luxembourg.

Then, Clinton, who will be staying on a U.S. military ship offshore, will head for the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, where 9,835 marble crosses and Stars of David mark the final resting place of some of the soldiers who helped take that soil. That night, Clinton will join 60,000 people for the closing ceremonies in Caen, the region’s largest city.

The most impressive surge of visitors to Normandy is expected on June 5 and 6, but French officials have estimated that more than 2 million Americans will come to France this year, many to see the D-day sites. And the commemorations, which already have begun, will continue until September as each French village stages a celebration to mark its own day of liberation.

The festivities come amid an unprecedented period of soul-searching in France. The trial and conviction earlier this year of Nazi collaborator Paul Touvier, the first Frenchman so convicted, sparked a renewed debate over the extent of French collaboration with the Germans. And many French people are even beginning to say that the French Resistance, though undeniably heroic and a source of great pride, played a smaller role in the liberation of France than was once thought.

In most of Normandy, though, there never have been any illusions about the identity of the liberators. A few cities farther inland, such as Caen, where the Germans hunkered down after the D-day invasion, suffered greatly during the Allied shelling. Some people there have mixed feelings about the liberation.

But on Omaha Beach, the facts are irrefutable: 3,000 American soldiers died in the first hours of D-day on that four-mile stretch of brown sand. Nearby, 225 U.S. Army Rangers braved heavy German fire to climb 100-foot rock cliffs with ropes and take the summit. A hundred and thirty-five of them were killed or wounded. And by the time Paris was liberated at the end of August, 1944, 37,000 Allied troops had lost their lives.

“Sometimes, in Paris, you hear people say, ‘U.S., go home,’ ” Renaud said. “But you never hear that here. I know many French people were killed, and we are proud of them. But the Americans and the English didn’t need the French Resistance to win.

“The Americans’ objective was Berlin,” Renaud added. “We know it was not just for us, that we were just on the way. But even though you call it an ‘invasion,’ we still call it ‘liberation.’ ”

At Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the anniversary of D-day has always been a special occasion. Renaud’s father was the mayor of the city of 1,500 at the time of the invasion. For years afterward, Renaud’s mother, Simone, in fluent English, answered thousands of letters from families of American servicemen and tended their graves. When she died in 1988, it was front-page news in the newsletter of the U.S. 82nd Airborne.

“We’ve been doing this for 50 years,” Renaud said of the planned welcome. “Each year since D-day, the American flag has been raised here.”

Bernard Peschet, who runs the Tom and Jerry Army Navy Store in downtown Sainte-Mere-Eglise, says business already is booming. He added the Normandy branch to his Marseilles store two years ago and hasn’t regretted it.

“It’s just been crazy around here,” Peschet said, smoking a pipe as he watched browsers studying everything from U.S. military uniforms to Lucky Strike lighters to the tiny metal “clickers” that paratroopers used on D-day to locate each other in the darkness.

Although some merchants clearly hope to profit from the influx of visitors, the sense of welcome seems genuine.

“I don’t know about the younger generation, but the people who lived here are really, deeply grateful,” Renaud said. “It’s not just to make money. The veterans of this war can be proud.”

“Of course, there are some who take advantage for tourism,” said Jean Skrzyniarsz, 54, who runs a cafe near the cemetery where 21,322 Germans are buried in a field of black crosses. “But people around here are really anti-German.”

Skrzyniarsz plans to host an American family he met during the 45th anniversary of D-day. But he worries that he won’t be able to get to his house, which is on Omaha Beach, during the festivities because of all the security surrounding the foreign heads of state.

“It could be a problem, but I don’t mind,” he said. “We all like these Americans. What can we do about it?”

Some of the older French residents of the region, who have welcomed veterans for years, are worried that on the 50th anniversary, the real stars of the show will be lost amid all the dignitaries. And the French government, meeting strong local resistance, was forced to back down a few weeks ago on a plan to cancel the hotel reservations of several hundred American and Canadian veterans to make room for visiting VIPs.

“I live for the people who were here, not for President Clinton or any other visitors,” Renaud said, pausing from work in his busy pharmacy downtown. “It would be a shame if all these VIPs leave a shadow on the real heroes.”

The American paratroopers, now in their late 60s and older, are the heroes of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. On the 13th-Century church that gives the town its name, a life-size model of an American paratrooper, complete with parachute, hangs from the steeple. It commemorates Pvt. John Steele, one of the 15,000 American paratroopers, who became snared on the church steeple on D-day morning and pretended to be dead to avoid German fire.

On June 5, 37 of those veterans, ages 67 to 82, will jump again. At first, the French were reluctant to allow the old men to jump, and town residents admit they are worried that someone will be hurt. But the government relented when the U.S. military agreed to provide medical and logistics support.

At the American cemetery, now technically U.S. soil and run by the American government, preparations are well under way for the big day. About 1.5 million people visit the cemetery every year, and the caretaker expects an additional 500,000 this year.

A few days ago, one French visitor, Monique Gauchet, scrawled a succinct message in the visitors book at the exit. “Thank you,” she wrote, “for all your sacrifices.”

* RELATED STORIES: B1

Road Map to the Memorials

Here is a sampling of the events being held in France June 5 and 6 to mark the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy:

JUNE 5

1. Cherbourg: American ceremony, 3rd Air Force.

2. Bayeux: Dedication of an Eisenhower statue.

3. Sainte-Mere-Eglise: Memorial ceremony with veterans; includes jump by 37 paratroopers who participated in the invasion.

4. Ranville: Paratroopers jump, with Prince of Wales attending.

5. Courseulles-sur-Mer: Canadian ceremony.

6. Asnelles: British ceremony.

7. Hermanville: British ceremony.

8. Vierville: American ceremony.

9. Gold Beach: American ceremony.

10. Ouistreham: Arrival of Queen Elizabeth II, other heads of state and government.

11. Touffreville: Wreath-laying ceremony by 1st Canadian Parachutist Battalion.

JUNE 6

12. Pointe du Hoc: American ceremony, with President Clinton.

13. Utah Beach: Joint American-French ceremony, with Clinton and French President Francois Mitterrand.

14. Bayeux: 11:30 a.m. French-British ceremony, with Mitterrand, Queen Elizabeth and King of Norway.

15. Hermanville: British ceremony, with Prince Charles.

16. Douvres la Delivrande: British ceremony, with Prince Andrew.

17: Omaha Beach: International ceremony with all the heads of state.

18. Colleville-sur-Mer: Groundbreaking of memorial to U.S. Navy personnel.

19. Arromanches: British ceremony with Queen Elizabeth.

20. Ouistreham: French ceremony with Mitterrand.

21. Caen: Closing ceremonies, with 2,000 actors depicting the battle of Normandy.


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