DRAGUIGNAN, France — When a group of sailors, Marines and airmen from Naval Station Rota, Spain, arrived in southern France last week for a Memorial Day ceremony, most did not expect the greatest of welcomes.

But, to their surprise, they were overwhelmed by French hospitality.

While relations between longtime allies United States and France are strained because of disagreements over the handling of the Iraq crisis, the roughly 40 U.S. servicemembers who visited this past week said they couldn’t tell.

“What was going on with the war and how France was all against it, I thought that the French people were going to be against Americans,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Neaves, an electronics technician from Rota.

“But when I got here, I learned just the opposite. The French were generous, nice and going out of their way to help us out.”

During the ceremony at Rhone American Cemetery, some French residents posed for photos with the Marines and asked for autographs. A handful of residents carried small U.S. flags.

Residents treated many of the U.S. servicemembers like prized guests as soon as they arrived.

Wherever the Americans went in town, they were smothered with kindness. Some restaurants offered Marines and sailors free drinks and appetizers. Many locals offered to ferry servicemembers from the city bars to the French base where the group was staying for a memorial ceremony in town.

Some servicemembers joked that they weren’t sure they were in France.

Neaves went to a bar with 16 other servicemembers the night they arrived. When it was time to return to the base, the taxis were gone and they had no ride.

The bar owner recruited a friend to take all of them back in his small car.

“He made quite a few trips, but he did not have a problem with it,” Neaves said. “We tried offering him money and he said, ‘No.’ ”

The next night, the bar owner’s daughter gave the group a lift home.

Ensign Mike Jarosz said on Friday night, French officers invited the U.S. officers in the group to a dinner on base.

“It’s a camaraderie thing,” he said. “They’re soldiers, we’re soldiers and our jobs are the same. We understand each other, and we appreciate each other.”

And the topic of the war, American boycotts of French products and the strained relations between the two countries never came up during dinner.

“We’re not politicians, we let the politicians worry about that,” Jarosz said.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Clayton said the animosity between the United States and France should stop.

“Where do you draw the line?” he asked. “We’re people. And I don’t have a problem with them being against the war. It’s a choice we all make. There are people in America who were against the war.

“We’re here to do a job, and that’s why we do our job, so they can say and do whatever the want. There’s no reason to hold a grudge.”

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