The French Still Thank America for D-Day
A surprising number of French remember America’s role in their liberation during World War II.

An American flag adorns a commemorative wreath in Sainte-Mère-Église, France. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)


John Fund

Sainte-Mère-Église, France — “​We love you! Thank you for all you did!” 15-year-old Audrey Rigaud said with tears in her eyes as she embraced Bob Bedford, a 90-year-old veteran of D-Day, outside the banquet this small French town held in honor of their country’s liberation from Nazi occupation. The difference in their ages may have been three quarters of a century and their cultures a continent apart, but the message was clear: A surprising number of French haven’t forgotten America’s role in “the liberation.”

Audrey had come to Normandy all the way from Marseille — 700 miles away — with her classmates to commemorate D-Day for a school project. “Our feelings are so full, we want to make sure no one forgets the liberation,” Olivia Diddi, a fellow student of Audrey’s, told me. For his part, Bedford was overwhelmed by the reception he’s gotten. “It’s the first time I’ve been back since 1944,” the former Navy lieutenant told me. “If I’d only known how they felt.”

The feeling about D-Day runs deep in Normandy, a still largely rural part of France where the main economy is dairy farming, agriculture, and, yes, tourism. Stephane Lamache is a former French paratrooper from nearby Cherbourg. Until recently, he was director of this city’s Airborne Museum, which honors the 16,000 Allied paratroopers and glider troops who dropped behind enemy lines and enabled the soldiers on Normandy’s beaches to resist the German counterattack and establish a toehold in Europe.

Lamache takes us through the fields where U.S. paratroopers fought Germans for three days to prevent them from taking back a bridge across the Merderet River. “The battle has been called the most intense small-arms battle of World War II,” he told our group. “The Americans had only what they could bring from the sky, but they held the Germans off and soon liberated Sainte-Mère-Église.” Later, at lunch, he says the D-Day invasion has very personal connections to him. Walking on Omaha Beach one day in 2012, he spotted a small scrap of steel and picked it up. It was a dog tag, or nameplate, of an American soldier. After extensive cleaning, he was able to pick out the name — James Kelson, an African-American soldier who was still alive in the Washington, D.C. area, at age 93. In an emotional ceremony, the dog tag was returned to Kelson last year with French TV recording the event. “I felt it was the first time I could pay back what Americans had done to liberate my country,” Lamache told me.

I heard a lot of things in Normandy this week that might sound trite or simplistic to someone who has never been in battle. But you quickly realize that the reason some truths are eternal and valuable is precisely because they can have such great meaning to people. Europe was occupied by a terrible tyranny and its people were slowly starving as the war ground on. America, Britain, Canada, and other countries that sent their young men and women overseas to take back Europe did a noble and courageous thing. It’s refreshing to learn that so many people in Europe who weren’t alive to witness the joy of liberation still do so much to commemorate it.

But Americans are doing their bit too. The Airborne Museum in this city, for example, has expanded over the years, fueled by many private donations from the States. The latest example, unveiled last week, is an exhibit sponsored by the Reagan Legacy Foundation, the group I traveled to Normandy with. It commemorates the famous Pointe du Hoc speech by President Reagan in 1984, when he became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to France to mark the significance of D-Day. “We think there is a continuum from the liberation of Europe by these veterans and the kind of persistence Reagan and Americans showed 40 years later in ending the Cold War without a shot being fired,” says Jay Hoffman, a board member of the Reagan foundation. The group will break ground nest year to build, next to the Airborne Museum, a conference center that will honor President Reagan and provide a forum for the discussion of the need to oppose tyranny at all times and at all places.

Michael Reagan, President Reagan’s son, walked through the Reagan exhibit at the Airborne Museum here in a pensive mood. The exhibit includes a new film, Reagan at Normandy, that highlights his visit here in 1984. “My father joined the Army Reserves as early as 1937, but he was rejected for combat duty because of extremely bad eyesight,” he recalls. So Reagan served three years with the Army First Motion Picture Unit, making training and inspirational firms. “He felt his service was honorable but couldn’t compare with those who landed in Normandy,” he told me. “That’s one reason he came here to honor them.”

The message I take away from the windswept beaches of Normandy is that there are times when tyranny must be opposed with every fiber of our being — and that service comes in many forms, some dangerous and some just a matter of doing what even the weakest among us can. And finally, that even though it can’t be expected or wished for, the gratitude of people toward those who fought against tyranny can be long-lasting indeed. I learned that here in Normandy.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been amended since its initial posting.

D-Day: June 6, 1944
On June 6, 1944, over 195,000 troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline in the largest amphibious assault in history, preceded by a massive airborne operation to pave the way. Here’s a look back at that fateful day.
The Allied invasion force crossed the English channel on more than 1,200 combat ships and went ashore aboard some 4,100 landing craft. The bloody fighting on that first day took a heavy toll, with more than 9,000 casualties. But with the breakout from the beaches, the liberation of Europe had begun.
As the massive invasion force made final preparations in England, Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a stirring message exhorting the troops to victory. Here are General Eisenhower's words on the eve of the momentous battle.
“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.”
“In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
“Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.”
“But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man.”
“Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground.”
“Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory!”
“I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory! Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
The fleet of C-47s that would carry American paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne division.
Paratroopers receive final instructions before boarding their C-47.
Preparing part of the invasion flotilla at an English port.
A sign outside of Trinity Church in New York City.
THE INVASION: Part of the massive convoy drives across the English Channel towards Normandy.
Another view of the convoy.
An American B-25 Mitchell bomber flies over the invasion fleet.
Troops and equipment aboard a ship during the channel crossing.
American paratroopers en route to Normandy. 
Paratroopers prepare to jump into occupied France before dawn.
Troops board their landing craft for the perilous journey to the beach.
Allied landing craft near Omaha Beach throw smoke as camouflage.
Pushing toward Omaha Beach.
American troops crouch inside a landing craft as they approach Omaha Beach.
Huddling for cover from German guns inside a landing craft.
The first wave hits the beaches.
The first wave hits the beaches.
Wading ashore at Utah Beach.
American infantry wade ashore under the cover of naval gunfire.
American troops huddle for protection as an artillery shell explodes on Utah Beach.
Approaching Obama Beach.
Approaching Obama Beach.
U.S. Army rangers at the heavily defended Pointe du Hoc.
Royal Canadian Navy troops approach Juno Beach.
A Canadian landing craft approaches Juno Beach.
Canadian troops rush ashore at Courseulles.
British 48th Royal Marines come ashore at Saint-Aubin-sur-mer.
British troops on the beach.
French commandos disembark from their landing craft.
Soldiers with the Eighth Infantry Regiment, Fourth Infantry Division, move over the seawall onto Utah Beach.
More landing craft approach the beach as smoke billows from German positions.
Infantry of the British Second Army prepare to move off Sword Beach under enemy fire.
American troops pull wounded comrades ashore on Omaha Beach.
Tending to the casualties at Omaha Beach.
Wounded American troops on Omaha Beach.
Soldiers take cover in foxholes after the beach is secured.
British armor moves inland from Gold Beach.
American reinforcement come ashore near Vierville sur Mer.
Cargo and transport ships move men and materiel onto the beaches.
British tanks and trucks disembark onto a “Rhino” barge.
101st Airborne paratroopers in Carentan.
Canadian troops move through a devastated street in Caen.
Aircraft fly over Utah Beach bringing reinforcements on D-Day+1.
Operation Overlord presses on as reinforcements march inland.
Updated: Jun. 06, 2014