PICAUVILLE, France — In the middle of the night 70 years ago, residents of this town woke to the roar of aircraft engines, the thunder of German flak guns, a crash and the screams of dying Americans.
Those were the first casualties of D-Day, according to the lore here, where a new memorial to Americans who died in the air assault on Normandy was unveiled Thursday.
With American C-130 cargo planes buzzing low overhead, French officials said the crash was a horror, but also brought joy to the people because they realized that their liberators had arrived.
“This community remembers the liberation, as do others across Europe,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander.
Breedlove was one of more than 200 members of the U.S. military at the ceremony, one of the hundreds of commemorations being held this week in Normandy in remembrance of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion that led to the downfall of Nazi Germany.
Nearly a thousand people turned out here to watch as French and American officials and the daughters of two World War II pilots unveiled the memorial, which stands next to a memorial to the 9th Air Force, a model of a C-47 troop transport and the remains of one of the engines of the plane that crashed here in the opening moments of the Allied assault.
“You honor the sacrifices made here, and you did not forget the heroes who rest below your soil,” Breedlove said.
Nearly 50 World War II veterans from every branch of service attended the dedication. They were treated like rock stars by locals, officials, re-enactors and tourists who crowded in to get autographs from the men who fought here 70 years ago.
While many were remembering the war, Navy veteran Joe Jackson, 88, said, “I try to forget it.”
That’s easier said than done, though.
“I remember shooting a gun, I remember dropping depth charges and I remember picking up a few of the dead bodies and took the dog tags off and we buried them at sea,” Jackson said.
He also remembers when his ship, a destroyer, hit a mine in the English Channel and limped back to England.
This was his second trip to France since the war, he said, and he came back “to heal the wounds and to see why you were sacrificing your life.”
The Europeans he’s met in those trips, “have been real good, people have been real fine, and appreciative,” he said. “So I say it was worth it.”