'I never forget': How this Normandy town remembers the American sacrifice at D-Day 75 years on

Sainte-Mère-Église became a battleground in the largest seaborne invasion ever, and residents still remember that day 75 years ago.
Image: Henry-Jean Renaud holds a photo of himself after the liberation outside of the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-eglise
Henry-Jean Renaud with a photo of himself after the liberation, outside the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy, France, on Tuesday. Lucie Mach / for NBC News

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By F. Brinley Bruton

SAINTE-MÈRE-ÉGLISE, France — After the D-Day landings, Henri-Jean Renaud’s mother soothed grieving hearts across the U.S.

Simone Renaud began corresponding with American women after Life magazine ran a photo of her laying flowers at the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the eldest son of the former president who had died weeks after leading the first wave of U.S. troops onto Utah Beach on June 6, 1944.

“The letters came from families of lost boys. My mother wrote back," Renaud said. "She went to the graves, took a picture, laid some flower petals."

A model depicting the D-Day landings in the mayor's office Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy. Lucie Mach / for NBC News

The letters begged his mother, the wife of the mayor of the first town to be liberated by the largest seaborne invasion in history, to find and tend the graves of the men who had died in the decisive struggle to liberate Europe. Simone Renaud responded to the Americans who sacrificed for her and her family to be free from Nazi occupation.

“My parents, especially my mother, were very devoted to the Americans,” said Renaud, who was 10 when the invasion happened.

The remains of more than 9,380 American military personnel lie in the nearby Normandy American Cemetery — most of whom died during D-Day or in the operations that followed.

"There But Not There" installation at Utah Beach in Normandy. Lucie Mach / for NBC News

Renaud, 85, showed NBC News a handwritten ledger of names, rows and numbers — a list of the fallen servicemen’s graves his mother found and looked after. He still has binders full of correspondence and photographs.

“My mother sent and received thousands of letters — I only kept a few,” Renaud said from his neat home in the town of Sainte-Mère-Église.

The town is also part of history.

Early on D-Day, paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne Divisions descended on Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy. The battle for the town and its inhabitants are described in the book and movie “The Longest Day.”

The bond between the town and the American military also remains strong.

The photo in Life magazine showing Henry-Jean Renaud's mother, Simone Renaud, laying flowers at the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr.Lucie Mach / for NBC News

Just two days before the D-Day anniversary celebrations, Renaud’s home was aflutter as his wife and her sister prepared a dinner for senior U.S. Air Force officers. It is a tradition in Sainte-Mère-Église to host American servicemen on these ceremonies.

Army Reserve Sgt. Blake Covey, 27, of the 416th Civil Affairs Battalion, was one of the many active servicemen in Normandy for the anniversary. The visit had been “breathtaking,” said the native of Orange County, California.

“The hospitality of this village and neighboring villages is humbling,” Covey said as he stood in the village’s main square. The bond between some Norman towns liberated by the Allies and the U.S. wasn’t taught much when he was in school in the U.S., he noted.

“They are treating us as if we took part in this day — it makes me feel not worthy,” Covey said of the townspeople.

A fake parachutist hangs on the bell tower in memory of John Steele on a church in Sainte-Mère-Église. Lucie Mach / for NBC News

Today, a dummy paratrooper hangs from the church tower in Sainte-Mère-Église — a tribute to Pvt. John Steele of the 82nd 505th Regiment, who was shot on his descent and dangled for hours from the church tower, playing dead, on June 6, 1944.

Renaud remembers that morning, when wave after wave of C-47 transport planes roared above. His father woke him up when a fire engulfed a building behind the church. The main square was full of townspeople trying to douse the flames.

There was a fierce battle, as German soldiers shot at American paratroopers falling from the sky.

“It was a real mess,” Renaud said. “It was the first time I had seen a man dead.”

Standing in the Airborne Museum in town, he points to where he saw dead paratroopers hanging from trees.

Andree Auvray, 93, was 8-months pregnant on June 6, 1944.Lucie Mach / for NBC News

“For me, it is not a museum — it is a memory. Every time I come here, I remember these guys,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Oh, you remember.’ I say, ‘No, I never forget.’”

Like Renaud, Andrée Auvray has not forgotten the German occupation and the American liberation.

“We couldn’t be in our own living room,” said Auvray, 93, explaining that her family had been forced to share their home with German troops during the invasion. She remembers the danger of smuggling food from the countryside to Paris in hat boxes.

“We were always asking ourselves — what will happen to us?” said Auvray, who was pregnant at the time. “If the Americans hadn’t come, what would have become of us?”

And like so many others in the village, Auvray’s family is making the annual dinner for American servicemen.

A remembrance cross on Utah Beach. Lucie Mach / for NBC News

This year her daughter is serving a regional specialty, turkey in a sauce of cream and mushrooms — escalope à la Normande.

CORRECTION (June 5, 2019, 4:14 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the branch of the armed forces in which Sgt. Blake Covey serves. He serves with the Army Reserve, not the Air Force.