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."
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. …