French survivors keep D-Day gratitude alive

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In this photo dated May 14, 2014, Andree Auvray answers question during an interview with the Associated Press in Sainte Mere Eglise in Normandy, France. Andree Auvray, nine months pregnant, was hiding from German bombings in a Normandy ditch with her husband one night in June 1944 when their dogs started barking. The shadows of three soldiers appeared. The soldiers were Americans. D-Day had begun. Auvray relives that wrenching time with clarity and a growing sense of urgency. Seventy years have passed since the Allied invasion of Normandy helped turn the tide against Hitler. With their numbers rapidly diminishing, she and other French women and men who owe their freedom to D-Day’s fighters are more determined than ever to keep alive the memory of the battle and its meaning. (AP Photo/Nicolas Garriga)

In this photo dated May 14, 2014, Andree Auvray answers question during an interview with the Associated Press in Sainte Mere Eglise in Normandy, France. Andree Auvray, nine months pregnant, was hiding from German bombings in a Normandy ditch with her husband one night in June 1944 when their dogs started barking. The shadows of three soldiers appeared. The soldiers were Americans. D-Day had begun. Auvray relives that wrenching time with clarity and a growing sense of urgency. Seventy years have passed since the Allied invasion of Normandy helped turn the tide against Hitler. With their numbers rapidly diminishing, she and other French women and men who owe their freedom to D-Day’s fighters are more determined than ever to keep alive the memory of the battle and its meaning. (AP Photo/Nicolas Garriga)

In this photo dated May 15, 2014, the Pointe du Hoc is seen from inside a German bunker in Cricqueville en Bessin, in Normandy, France. Andree Auvray, nine months pregnant, was hiding from German bombings in a Normandy ditch with her husband one night in June 1944 when their dogs started barking. The shadows of three soldiers appeared. The soldiers were Americans. D-Day had begun. In an interview with Associated Press, Auvray relives that wrenching time with clarity and a growing sense of urgency. Seventy years have passed since the Allied invasion of Normandy helped turn the tide against Hitler. With their numbers rapidly diminishing, she and other French women and men who owe their freedom to D-Day’s fighters are more determined than ever to keep alive the memory of the battle and its meaning. (AP Photo/Nicolas Garriga)

In this photo dated May 14, 2014, Andree Auvray displays her family album during an interview with the Associated Press in Sainte Mere Eglise in Normandy, France. Andree Auvray, nine months pregnant, was hiding from German bombings in a Normandy ditch with her husband one night in June 1944 when their dogs started barking. The shadows of three soldiers appeared. The soldiers were Americans. D-Day had begun. Auvray relives that wrenching time with clarity and a growing sense of urgency. Seventy years have passed since the Allied invasion of Normandy helped turn the tide against Hitler. With their numbers rapidly diminishing, she and other French women and men who owe their freedom to D-Day’s fighters are more determined than ever to keep alive the memory of the battle and its meaning. (AP Photo/Catherine Gaschka)

FILE – In this photo dated Friday, April 25, 2014, a dummy paratrooper representing a WWII paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne hangs on the belltower of Sainte Mere Eglise, in Normandy, France. During the drop, American paratrooper John Steele’s parachute got caught on the church spire. For two hours, Steele hung there, feigning death before being taken prisoner by the Germans. Today, a dummy paratrooper hangs from the spire in his honor. (AP Photo/David Vincent, file)

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SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE, France (AP) — Andree Auvray, nine months pregnant, was hiding from German bombings in a Normandy ditch with her husband one night in June 1944 when their dogs started barking. The shadows of three soldiers appeared.

“We both came out to see what was going on,” she recalls. She initially thought the men were the Nazi occupiers who had upended life in her quiet farming village. “And then I said ‘No, it’s not the Germans!’

The soldiers were Americans. D-Day had begun.

Auvray relives that wrenching time with clarity and a growing sense of urgency. Seventy years have passed since the Allied invasion of Normandy helped turn the tide against Hitler. With their numbers rapidly diminishing, she and other French women and men who owe their freedom to D-Day’s fighters are more determined than ever to keep alive the memory of the battle and its meaning.

As President Barack Obama and other world leaders prepare to gather in Normandy next week to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle, French survivors are speaking to schools, conferences, tourists, filmmakers about their experiences, and their gratitude.

That’s especially important to Auvray’s hometown of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first village liberated by the Allies after D-Day.

About 15,000 paratroopers landed in and around the town not long after midnight on June 6, 1944, and seized it from the Germans at 4:30 a.m. An American flag was raised in front of the town hall.

During the drop, American paratrooper John Steele’s parachute got caught on the church spire. For two hours, Steele hung there, feigning death before being taken prisoner by the Germans. Today, a dummy paratrooper hangs from the spire in his honor.

Henri-Jean Renaud was an excitable 10-year-old the night the Americans landed, and his father was the town mayor.

“Waves of planes came, paratroopers landed, and one hour later — after various events and fighting on the square between Germans and Americans — (my father) came back home,” Renaud recounts. “He was all excited, saying ‘There you go, it’s the (D-Day) landing, it has finally happened!'”

While the population was grateful to the Americans, cohabitation was not easy that first day.

“The civilians were trying to make friends with them (the Americans), were showing gestures of sympathy,

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