D-day night: an eyewitness account; My Longest Night, by Genevieve Duboscq. Translated by Richard S. Woodward. New York: Seaver Books $13.95.
On the night of June 5, 1944, tall men with blackened faces and strange baggy pants burst into the house at an isolated level crossing just inland from Utah Beach. Genevieve Duboscq, only 11 years old at the time, didn't realize that her town, Sainte-Mere-Eglise, was to be the first liberated in the Normandy landings. Nor could she know that these American paratroopers were spearheading a move aimed at keeping German reinforcements away from the beachhead.
Many of the D-Minus-1 airborne pathfinders would have perished but for the valiant efforts of the Duboscq family. By error, some DC-3 transport planes landed dozens of paratroopers in the treacherous Merderet River marshland, an area the Germans had flooded months before. Tumbling through the darkness from an altitude of only 300 feet, some troopers of the 82d airborne never even saw the country they'd come to liberate. The Paris-Cherbourg rail line that ran past Genevieve's house seemed like a causeway stretching across the flooded countryside. Hundreds of Yank chutists, loaded down with gear, weapons, and ammo, drowned in the swampland that night.
In this surprisingly bland memoir, Genevieve recalls that her father -- a fearsome, hard-drinking man -- poled his punt through the darkness, rescuing dozens of floundering GIs. Meanwhile, the child and her mother turned the house at level crossing 104 into a field hospital where the wounded were given first aid.
Mme. Duboscq and little Genevieve (or "Jen-e-veev," as the Yanks pronounced it) tried their best to warm and nourish the injured soldiers. But the shelter offered by the Duboscq family lasted only a matter of hours. Soon gunners from both sides were using the level crossing as a landmark for adjusting artillery fire. By some miracle, the house continued to stand despite the exploding shells. The author relates that there was a near-perfect ring of craters around the old house.
On June 10, Genevieve watched through binoculars at an upstairs window as a group of 16 GIs, cut off and out of ammo, surrendered to the Germans. When the disarmed prisoners rushed their captors they were mowed down. Then the Germans began using their knives on the fallen paratroopers. Genevieve writes that this butchery went on for nearly three quarters of an hour.
Genevieve, who turned 12 in October 1944, had a communion dress made of material from a soldier's parachute. Another soldier who took part in the fighting for Sainte-Mere-Eglise promised to return after the war. He would adopt the child and she would escape her father's drunken rages. But these dreams were shattered in August 1945 when Genevieve accidentally triggered a land mine near Sainte-Mere-Eglise. The explosion, which left her with extensive injuries, killed her younger brother, Claude.
We should be grateful to Genevieve Duboscq, now the mother of five children, for having put her memories on paper. Her first-hand narrative is one of the most personal descriptions of D-Day that we are likely to have from a French civilian.