STE.-MERE-EGLISE, FRANCE — THE largest battle reunion in history reaches its crescendo today as Allied leaders join an estimated 45,000 veterans in commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day - the launching of the Normandy invasion.
After events last week and over the weekend at World War II sites in Italy and Great Britain, the focus shifts to a swatch of France's Channel coast where, on June 6, 1944, the largest air and naval armada ever assembled struck a blow that turned the tide against Nazi Germany.
As the first town liberated by US paratroopers in the invasion, Ste.-Mere-Eglise showed its remembrance with thousands of large and small flags of the United States, Great Britain, and Canada in shop windows, hanging from private balconies, and stretching banner-style across village streets. The colorful display expressed gratitude for the thousands of graying veterans who returned to mark the occasion on the battle site.
President Clinton, French President Francois Mitterrand, and other Allied leaders are scheduled to deliver speeches at Omaha Beach, the Colleville American military cemetery, and other legendary Normandy battle sites today.
But for many of the veterans and their French hosts, the most memorable moments will result from a simple, people-to-people gesture.
Fifty years ago, the then-mayor of Ste.-Mere-Eglise, Alexandre Renaud, concluded a now-classic personal account of his village's deliverance with a farewell to its liberators, adding: ``Someday they will be back, I'm sure of it.... They will hedge-hop over Ste.-Mere-Eglise, and perhaps they will drop flowers - picked the day before in the United States - ... like multicolored parachutes.''
Fulfilling that vision, a US helicopter flew low over the town square yesterday and dropped flowers brought from most of the 50 states by the returning soldiers.
Town's bond with the veterans
Ste.-Mere-Eglise maintains an intense relationship with ``its'' veterans. Steve Epps, a retired textile manager from Lancaster, S.C., who parachuted into the town when he was 19, says he'll never forget the grade-school children who memorized and proudly sang the Star- Spangled Banner to him and a group of his buddies from the 82nd Airborne division.
``I've never seen anything so beautiful. It brought tears to your eyes,'' he says.
Many of the veterans seemed overwhelmed as young mothers asked them to kiss their babies or as thronging well-wishers sought autographs for worn Battle of Normandy texts.
``There's nothing complicated about why I'm here,'' says Laurent Lelievre, a young collector of Americana who drove Saturday from his home in Beauvais, France, to Ste.-Mere-Eglise, which quintupled its population over the weekend as the vets and their families were welcomed into local homes.
``I owe my freedom to these great old men,'' he adds.
As the kind of weather that put off the 1944 invasion by a day -
rain and high winds - gave way to partial sun, tens of thousands of veterans and mostly French celebrants poured into this town where for eight months of the year a dummy paratrooper hangs from the church steeple in remembrance.
All was not simple frivolity. The veterans remembered the thousands of boys who never made it past the beaches and fields and reflected on what their 50-year-old sacrifice means today.
``With all the traffic, we couldn't make it to the American cemetery, and I can't tell you how bad that makes me feel,'' says Albert Lilja of Beverly, Mass., who was a C-47 crew chief in June 1944.
``Those young boys gave their life so we could have a fruitful one. I just hope they aren't forgotten, especially by the young,'' he adds. ``We don't ever want to see our kids face that again, ever.''
Others say events in Europe and elsewhere in the world mean that the Normandy commemoration should be just as much about the future as the past.
``I'm worried about the neo-Nazis in Germany and the way history can be forgotten so that people can start believing that something like the Holocaust didn't exist,'' says Harley Scott, a veteran from Pittsburgh, Pa., who as an 82nd division radio operator parachuted into Sicily, Italy, France, and the Netherlands.
``We released people from the [concentration] camp in Buchenwald, we saw the shape the survivors were in and what had happened to the others,'' Mr. Scott says.
Although the sentiment was not unanimous, most of the veterans questioned about the absence of German leaders at the ceremony said they thought any country that fought in the war should be present ``to remember.''
Mr. Epps, who says he would have ``no problem'' running into German veterans during the commemoration, nevertheless told the story of an 82nd Airborne buddy who recently ran into the son of World War II German Gen. Erwin Rommel at one of the Normandy invasion sites.
``Rommel's son told him, `We [Germans] would have liked to be invited, but Normandy is for the winners,' `` Epps says. ``I thought that was pretty neat.''
While President Clinton was expected to be off the English coast yesterday afternoon reviewing a representation of the invasion's flotilla, a group of some three- dozen D-Day veterans joined 500 paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st US divisions in jumping over Ste.-Mere-Eglise, recreating what Mr. Renaud had described as ``confetti'' falling over the town the night of June 5, 1944.
That event promised to be a huge crowd pleaser, but again, it was not just for fun that the crowds converged here.
``I arranged a trip through Europe so I could come to pay my respects,'' says Larry Davidson, a 19-year-old Toronto student who had just asked Epps for an autograph.
``I'm Jewish, so I think I have a special debt to these men. They saved whatever Judaism was left in Europe,'' he says. ``For all of us, they saved freedom.''
Mr. Davidson says he felt as if North America was a ``safe haven'' when he read about the war ravaging Bosnia-Herzegovina, but he says that didn't mean anyone should be ``allowed to forget'' why World War II was fought. ``In schools in Canada, this battle hardly gets a paragraph, so how can you expect the kids to appreciate what happened here?'' he asks.
Maurice Renaud, son of Ste.-Mere's D-Day mayor, says his town was ``doing this so big,'' because people knew that so many of their liberators would never be back.
The bond may eventually loosen, but for now he says the American flowers his father envisioned would prove two peoples' attachment.
``It's happening 50 years later,'' he says, ``and it's beautiful.''