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.
Behind the size and extravagance of the commemoration is the realization that the 50th anniversary of D-Day will be the last major observance at which a significant number of players in the actual event will be present. ``The boys who came here back then are now men averaging in their early 70s,'' says Girault, who himself was an 18-year-old Red Cross worker in Caen in 1944. ``This is the last hurrah.''
For many of these men, most of whom were off their farms or out of distant hometowns for the first time, D-Day remains the defining moment in their lives. ``When you live an extraordinary event, no distance ever grows between you and the moment,'' Caen's mayor says. ``So just as I can still feel the exhilaration of the liberation, I know the men of June 6 are still in the water or the air of the Normandy landing.''
Grenade still imbedded in tree
For many returning veterans, the memories are indeed vivid. Stories abound across lower Normandy of former soldiers coming back decades later to find a farm where they were sheltered for a night or a family that offered eggs and Normandy cider to hungry passing soldiers.
A story is told of an American who suddenly yells for the bus that is taking him and other D-Day veterans to the Normandy invasion sites to stop: After slowly climbing down from the bus, he approaches an old tree and breaks into tears on finding imbedded in its trunk the hand grenade he remembers leaving there in 1944.
Yet as Jeanette Pentecote and thousands of other cases demonstrate, the personal impact of D-Day is not all on the side of the soldiers. One need only visit Jean Dufour to get a glimpse of the landing's enduring presence.
A school-bus driver now living in Eterville outside Caen, Mr. Dufour was an infant when American soldiers passed through his parents' farm outside Picauville, just west of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. But the stories his father and neighbors told of the Normandy invasion were a part of his growing up, and now his passion is collecting memorabilia and learning everything he can about the Battle of Normandy.
``My father was the first in our area to find a group of paratroopers after the drop, and they immediately fixed their weapons on him,'' says Dufour. ``Nazi propaganda had convinced the Americans that they wouldn't be well-received by the French, so they weren't going to take any chances.''
But the elder Dufour soon convinced the soldiers that he was indeed on their side, and he helped rescue stranded paratroopers after that.
``The Germans had flooded the fields to form swamps in anticipation of a landing. The unlucky paratroopers dropped into deep water and never came back up,'' Dufour says. His father often retold the story of the night he rowed silently across the swamp looking for stranded soldiers and how his heart stopped when a hand came out of a thicket to grab the boat - the hand of an American.
Today Dufour - who has an authentic D-Day Ford jeep, a handful of the brass crickets the D-Day troops used to signal each other, a period 48-star US flag he flies in front of his house on special occasions, and a photo he reveres of himself at 10 months held by a 90th Infantry Division American soldier he has never been able to identify - says his appreciation of D-Day is summed up in a song by French singer Michel Sardou.
``He says, `If the 'ricans hadn't come, we'd all be part of Germany,' and that's the way I feel,'' the soft-spoken Dufour says.
Not all French will celebrate
But not all the French are like Dufour, and not all of them will be embracing the celebration of a period that remains a black spot on French history. As revealed again by the on-going trial of Vichy-era police chief Paul Touvier for crimes against humanity, World War II was not just a period of French defeat and submission, but also of cooperation with and even some emulation of the Nazi regime. D-Day, then, is for some an unwelcome reminder that France had to be rescued from its descent.
``What the French have never faced up to is that there was a civil war in this country,'' says Jacques Vico, a member of the French resistance now active in educating French youth on the war era. ``When the Germans arrived in 1940, they were disciplined and strong and smart in their uniforms, and many French were won over to that vision of the future of Europe,'' he says. ``When the Allies arrived, most of the French were passive,'' he adds, ``but killing of members of the resistance by French hands continued well after D-Day.''
What Mr. Vico wants French youth to understand, he says, is that World War II was a confrontation between a dark ideology, dependent on submission of the masses, and a democratic system that guarantees - and depends on - the individual's right to think for himself.
And D-Day, he adds, exemplifies the best of the victorious side's principles.
``Omaha Beach was a tragedy, but it was also an extraordinary stage on which those young men conducted themselves with heroism and initiative,'' Vico says. ``The German officers, while they were intelligent, were overwhelmed because their ability to respond was smothered by a totalitarian doctrine,'' he adds. ``But the Allied men were able to respond with initiative to horrendous conditions, precisely because they came from a democratic system.''
Vico cites the legendary case of Col. George Taylor, who arrived on Omaha Beach as part of a second assault wave to find a wrenching scene of slaughter and bewildered, hiding survivors. Realizing the urgent need to snap the fear, Colonel Taylor yelled, ``Two kinds of people are going to stay on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now let's get the hell out of here!'' With that, an eventually victorious battle was relaunched.
Despite the unambiguous nature of the Allies' victory, and thus of the D-Day celebration, the preparations haven't progressed without controversy. Recently, the French government caused an uproar when it requisitioned for expected dignitaries a number of first-class hotel rooms reserved long ago by D-Day veterans. Stunned by furious accusations of insensitivity both from home and abroad, the government backed down.
But the most glaring and embarrassing glitch, in a Western Europe now organized into the European Union, has been what to do about Germany.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl let it be known that he would appreciate being associated somehow with the events, as a sign of peace and Germany's transition to a solid democratic partner.
But many circles within the World War II Allies balked at what they said would be an intolerable strain for veterans to face a German presence on the beaches.
Caen Mayor Girault suggested that the solution would be to invite a German delegation, including Chancellor Kohl if the French government agreed, to the evening spectacle to be held outside the Caen Memorial, the Girault-inspired interpretive museum of World War II and subsequent efforts for peace. But even that caused an uproar.
``I can understand why the Germans can't be on the beaches,'' the mayor says, ``but my idea was that the commemoration of a war event in the day would shift to a celebration of peace at night and that the Germans would join us in celebrating that turning of a page.''
Instead, Kohl and Mitterrand have agreed to take part jointly in a youth celebration in Heidelberg, Germany, on June 8 - a solution many find unsatisfactory.
Others worry that a commemoration they say should reflect the dignity of the men who fought on D-Day risks drowning in crass commercialism.
``What gripes me is how so many are approaching this with such a mercantile interest,'' says Philippe Jutras, an American who landed on Utah Beach as a soldier in July 1944 and now lives in Sainte-Mere-Eglise as curator of the Airborne Museum he built up. ``We have people trying to sell bullet key chains and personal World War II dog tags.''
Recalling that he himself took home a handful of sand from Utah Beach the first time he revisited it as a civilian, Mr. Jutras says the veterans' memories are ``sacred'' and shouldn't be trivialized by grotesque trinkets.
But there is no getting around the fact that the 50th anniversary of D-Day will be a huge tourism boon for the Normandy coast, which already makes part of its living from those visiting the battle sites. ``I remember complaining once to a hotel owner from Bordeaux that we didn't have the good weather she did for attracting tourists,'' says one hotel owner in Caen, where rooms for the June 6 period have been booked for months. ``She just smiled and said, ``We may have the sunshine, but you have the D-Day beaches.''
Yet despite some controversy and commercialism, the basic meaning of an extraordinary day in 20th-century history can still be expected to shine through. In fact, one of the striking features of D-Day is its unambiguous symbolism: In contrast to most defining battles in subsequent wars, those who participated in D-Day, from top to bottom, were convinced of the noble cause for which they fought.
At the Caen Memorial, a stone carries the ringing words of Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to his D-Day troops: ``The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.''
And in Sainte-Mere, Jutras displays a letter he cherishes, written by an American soldier to his family on the eve of the Normandy landing. Neither the letter nor the boy ever made it home, but his words now speak to visitors at the Airborne Museum. Signed simply ``Jim,'' the brief letter ends, ``If I don't come out of this thing I want you people ... to know I gave every ounce of my strength and energy for what I believe I am fighting for.''
It is that spirit, that determination to fight for a cause as basic as ``the struggle of democracy against dictatorship,'' Jutras says, that make D-Day so unforgettable to so many.
It is why Sainte-Mere-Eglise continues to hang a dummy paratrooper from its church steeple every year from April to November; why Jacques Vico is overseeing the transformation of his family farm, the Ardenne Abbey, into a study center for French and American scholars; and why Jean Dufour reminds the administrators of his small village to lay a wreath at their liberation monument every year.
And it is why a nervous but proud Maxime Pentecote will stand in his village square June 5 to read a poem about freedom and peace to a group of soldiers who 50 years ago brought freedom from across the sea.