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Small Norman village honors fallen heroes

/ Source: NBC News

If D-Day is about a monumental collective feat in the history of World War II, it remains, even 60 years on, a reminder of so many brave — often tragic — individual stories, too.

Some of them, memorialized in books and movies are well known. Others, like what happened in the sleepy Norman village of Hemevez on June 6, 1944, almost lost in history, until today.

There are still a few villagers who remember, but who never wanted to talk about, the day one of the farmers stumbled upon a grotesque pile of corpses under a hedgerow -- all wearing the uniform of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Like so many others, the American paratroopers had landed, early that morning, miles from their drop zone, near Ste. Mere Eglise, and right into the sights of a German platoon.

The farmer, a World War One veteran, immediately saw that the seven soldiers he had found weren't just war victims. They were war crimes victims, all executed with a bullet to the back of the head.

One soldier still held a cigarette between his lips; another's hands were clinging to the grass.

Helped by other villagers, the farmer transported the bodies to the local cemetery, next to Hemevez's old church, and buried them.

Weeks later, with Allied forces now advancing across Normandy, the villagers of Hemevez exhumed the bodies, and handed them over to the U.S. Army, for proper burial, at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

Tragedy almost forgotten
For six decades, few around Hemevez ever spoke about the executed American paratroopers, even though the incident eventually reached the War Crimes Tribunal and one German general was hung for ''atrocities.'' 

Over the years, Hemevez never participated in any of the D-Day anniversary commemorations in Normandy.

The incident may well have faded into oblivion, if not for the efforts of Dominique Francois, a forty-something, self-styled local historian who has very good reason to be interested in GI's in Normandy.

During the heavy allied air bombardment of Hitler's ''Atlantic Wall'' leading up to D-Day, the Francois family home was hit, its roof collapsing on his grand-father and two sons. The grand-father died in the attack but the two sons were dragged to safety by U.S. paratroopers, and later were ''adopted'' by GIs in a local U.S. military base. One of those sons became Dominique Francois's father.

''I was researching a book on the 507th Parachute Regiment'' (part of the 82nd Airborne), said Francois, standing on the very spot in Hemevez's cemetery where the executed U.S. soldiers were temporarily buried 60 years ago.

''I liked the story of the 507 because they dropped in this area, suffered 65 percent fatalities, helped to liberate my people but have become the forgotten heroes,” he said.

Digging around the U.S. military archives in Washington, D.C., for the book, he came across some gruesome footage of the exhumation of U.S. soldiers.

Francois said the film canister read, simply, ''82nd Airborne Atrocity." No date, no place. He was intrigued. He vaguely recalled a village tale about an execution in Hemevez and began to piece together the puzzle.

Tribute to fallen heroes
Two years later, Francois' hard work has led to the first official D-Day commemoration in the village's history.

The whole population of several hundred and the international media turned out to see the unveiling of a cemetery stone, in the presence of a dozen surviving members of the 507's jump on D-Day, all of them moved to tears.

Relations between the French and U.S. governments may be strained over the war in Iraq, but at the ceremony in Hemevez on Friday, hearts and minds were one.

Village children sang a medley of 1940's songs and a local politician told the U.S. vets, in English, that ''the debt that France owes you will never be forgotten.''

The American octogenarians, escorted by their families and, in some cases, their nurses, offered thanks, as well, to the people of Hemevez, for honoring their fallen comrades — 60 years ago, and now again.

They didn't know
Bob Davis, 82, from Plainfield, Vt., managed to stand on a modest VIP bench throughout the hour ceremony, but clearly struggled with his emotions. “Could you believe that?'' he asked a reporter afterwards, beaming with a smile. ''The amazing thing is, none of us even knew about this!''

Davis was right. His unit took so many casualties on D-Day — killed by shrapnel, bullets, bayonets or drowning in flooded marshland — that the execution of a handful of 507 prisoners in Hemevez never got back to the regiment.

Until now. The caption on the cemetery stone reads, ''To the memory of 7 parachutists of the 82nd Airborne, executed on the territory of this commune on 6 June 1944.”

There are no names on the stone. Because, in the dark, early morning chaos of D-Day, it was never clear who actually dropped, and died, in Hemevez.

But that didn't seem to bother the World War II vets who came here, nor someone they now call their own ''hero” - Dominique Francois, the Norman historian who uncovered the old secret.

''Does it matter that we can call them Bob or Dick or Sal or Tony?'' asked Francois after the ceremony. “What matters is that these forgotten heroes were honored today, and that some of their comrades were able to share in that honor.''