Remembering D-Day 50 Years Later France Prepares to Celebrate the Invasion of Normandy Beaches by World War II Allied Forces Series: COVER STORY. Remembering D-Day 50 Years Later. Only Article Appearing Today

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ON June 5, 11-year-old Maxime Pentecote will read a poem on the square of his Norman village to a group of graying warriors who 50 years ago trudged up the nearby beaches and dropped from the skies in the name of freedom.

The poem will be a "thank you" to the thousands of men who left their faraway homes - some when they weren't much older than Maxime - to liberate France and the rest of Europe from the clutch of an ugly tyranny. And in a way, the poem will be the returning in kind of a simple gesture of friendship, solidarity, and humanity that one of those men made to Maxime's grandmother as he marched through Sainte-Mere-Eglise in June 1944.

"I was in my father's butcher shop as a group of American paratroopers came up through the village single file," says Jeanette Pentecote, remembering "as if it were yesterday" the Allied landing in Normandy, the greatest single military invasion the world has ever known.

"One of them looked in the shop, and when he saw me he walked in, handed me a handkerchief and said softly in French, `Mademoiselle, when I left home, my mother told me to give this to the first pretty French girl I saw. It's for you.' " Too shy and astonished to ask the young man his name, 16-year-old Jeanette took the gift with a simple merci, and the soldier was gone.

"I never knew if he lived or died," says Mrs. Pentecote, who keeps a restaurant on Sainte-Mere's main street, "and I always worried that his mama might not have known that her son accomplished what she asked."

Today the handkerchief, a small square of white cotton with a spray of blue flowers, is part of the Airborne Museum in Sainte- Mere-Eglise, the first town liberated by Allied forces in the early hours of June 6, 1944 - D-Day.

Fifty years after 5,000 vessels and hundreds of air sorties landed more than 150,000 Allied troops on a 50-mile stretch of Normandy coastline, that handkerchief and Maxime's poem will join dozens of ceremonies and exhibits, a handful of heads of state and royalty, and tens of thousands of veterans to take part in a commemoration of one of the great moments of 20th-century history.

"The Second World War was unlike other wars; it was a battle between ideologies, and the Normandy landing was the turning point in favor of liberty and human rights," says Jean-Marie Girault, mayor of Caen, the Normandy city that will serve as capital of the June 6 events. "We in Normandy know why we are free," he adds, "we want to demonstrate that we remember the price and understand the demands of that freedom." Invasion, 1994

To accommodate what is being billed as the second Normandy invasion, whole sections of the region and many miles of its country roads will be cordoned off for the commemoration. On June 5, small towns like Sainte-Mere-Eglise will hold their own ceremonies: At Sainte-Mere, 600 young paratroopers of the United States Army's 82nd Airborne Division will fall over the town "like handfuls of confetti," as one French observer of the D-Day drop described it, before marching into town to join the veterans and their local hosts.

Then on June 6, a full day of multinational ceremonies will be held around the central afternoon event joining all the Allied countries on Omaha Beach, where 3,000 American boys died, within a matter of hours, in the firing line of German guns. That evening, Caen and the French government will offer a $5-million multimedia pageant recounting, Mr. Girault says, "how freedom once came from the sea" and ending with peace "in the hands of the children of Caen and its sister cities," both Allied and German.

United States President Bill Clinton will preside over ceremonies at Pointe du Hoc - where soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled 100-foot cliffs to silence enemy guns threatening both Omaha and Utah Beaches - in addition to joining French President Francois Mitterrand, Queen Elizabeth II, Canadian Premier Jean Chretien, and other Allied leaders at the Omaha ceremonies. …