Update June 6, 2019:
As a cub reporter for the Monitor in June 1984, I was not tasked with coming up with the headline for this reflection on D-Day that I submitted to The Home Forum page. But whoever settled on “Allies” back then got it just right.
Now 35 years later and on this 75th anniversary of one of history’s greatest military campaigns in the name of freedom, what still astounds me about that day is the resolve of allies – from the generals to, as President Ronald Reagan called them, the “boys” who selflessly scaled the Pointe du Hoc – to stand by each other for freedom.
That same spirit is what motivated René and Paulette Renaud, my French hosts. It is an indelible piece of the ties that still bind allies on both sides of the Atlantic today. As French President Emmanuel Macron said today in deep gratitude to those boys who stormed the Normandy beaches, France will never forget.
From the June 6, 1984, edition
Every June 6 I recall how I came to know D-Day in a way no history book could have taught me. The setting was a centuries-old farmhouse in the lush green heart of France. The year was 1981. Food, electricity, security, freedom – all were plentiful. And on that summer night nothing would have seemed more remote than the hardship, sorrow, heroism, and grandeur of le débarquement on the Normandy beaches four decades earlier.
The two-room, rock-and-mortar house – now a holiday getaway spot – belonged to René and Paulette Renaud. They had first taken me into their home eight years earlier as I completed a year in France as a high school exchange student from the United States. Within one short week, which remains a wonder of my life, René and Paulette wholeheartedly counted me among their numerous brood. And so they had become Papa and Maman, as they remain to this day.
Now five of us sat around a heavy oak table, chatting and cleaning up the remnants of cheese and baguette – two young grandsons having joined Papa, Maman, and me for a week in the countryside. Normally the boys were shunted off to bed shortly after sundown, the two of them protesting all the way up to the creaking loft where they slept. But tonight, Papa announced, there would be a suspension of the rules.
With the seriousness of the schoolteacher he had once been, he told the boys they could stay up because French television was presenting a movie that would tell them a very important story, one they should never forget. It would recount the day in 1944 when thousands of Americans – being quite French he did not complicate matters by mentioning the British – had hit the beaches of Normandy, far from their families and friends, to save France from imprisonment. It would also show them, he added, how some French people had risked everything to hasten the day when the yoke of bondage would be lifted.
The boys were, of course, ecstatic. Allowed to stay up past bedtime to watch a war movie, “Le Jour le Plus Long!” I was a bit skeptical. I had seen “The Longest Day” when it was released a decade earlier, and remembered it basically as a review of American male movie stars – from John Wayne and Robert Mitchum to Paul Anka and Fabian – in Army fatigues on beaches with high cliffs. But that was before I had been to France, before the abstraction of the French became the warmth and humanity of the likes of Papa and Maman. Now, the story of thousands of vessels and many thousands more men taking part in one of the world’s greatest liberation campaigns lost its false-front quality as it intertwined with the lives of people I knew and loved.
These lives were perhaps not so unusual. René and Paulette were married in July of 1942, shortly after René used false papers to escape a prisoner-of-war camp in what is now East Germany. The two of them took jobs as schoolteachers at a boys’ school in Normandy. But soon René, unable to accept the Nazi occupation of most of France, joined the Resistance. At first he quietly helped round up provisions for two brothers, the Boulangers, who had turned a mushroom-growing plot under their house into a hideout for escapees from German work camps; shortly his involvement deepened.
Within months both he and Paulette became what were called les gens de la lune, “people of the moon,” who upon secret signal from Radio London, and according to the cycles of the moon, picked up packs of arms and supplies dropped from the night sky. René declined to take part in sabotage, but spent as much time as possible figuring out the parachute drops, searching them out in blackened fields and delivering them to depots and ragtag resisters.
Paulette, who had just given birth to a second son, was alone much of the time. One night as she did her best to scrape together ingredients for a cake, there was a knock at the door. Her heart jumped, but she opened to a young woman she recognized as part of the underground. The Boulanger brothers had been tortured by the Gestapo and deported, their house destroyed. René was in safe hiding, the woman told her, but the couple’s house could be next on the search list.
Imagining eyes spying on her through every window, Paulette burned nonessential papers, then combed the room for a place to hide the rest. Her hands shaking, she quickly ripped out the sewing in the coverlet for her infant son’s straw mattress; once the papers were nestled inside, she resewed the seam. Then she waited, but the search did not take place. The following morning she abandoned her little house to rejoin René. The reunion was short-lived, however, and for the next six months the two were separated – until legions of American boys arrived on the beaches of Normandy.
So for Papa and Maman, the story now told on a color television screen in their comfortably renovated farmhouse was something of a home movie. When it ended, once victory was assured, they both had tears in their eyes.
As for the boys, they were all smiles, having found the movie fantastique! (War movies seem best perhaps to small boys, who don’t yet give the reality of war equal footing with their dreams of glory.) As they prepared to climb the stairs to bed, Papa stopped them with their first names, his voice retaining the schoolteacher’s gravity.
“That was not just a movie,” he told them, “but the recounting of a very important moment in our country’s history. If it weren’t for the Americans, our beautiful France might be a very different place today.” Then he instructed them to give me a special good-night kiss, to thank me for the gift my countrymen had given. Quickly but quietly they did as told, each kissing my cheek and murmuring with all the seriousness a child can muster, “Merci.”
I don’t normally cry at movies, don’t even get teary-eyed. That summer night in central France was an exception.