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D-Day celebration: veterans' "last hurrah'

What Pierre Gallin remembers are the white outlines of the parachutes floating down out of the dark sky.

What Jeannette Legoupillot remembers is the handkerchief an American paratrooper gave her later that day as she stood in the door of her father's butcher shop.

Gallin was 12, Legoupillot 16 on that day 50 years ago when 17,000 men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions began dropping out of the sky in parachutes and gliders at 15 minutes after midnight (only 10:15 p.m., June 5 by local farmers' time) to begin the Allied reconquest of Europe.

June 6 was D-Day. A few hours later, after the first paratroopers landed, nearly 150,000 other Allied troops, American, British and Canadian, came ashore at nearby beaches along a 50-mile stretch of Normandy coast _ the Americans at those code-named Utah and Omaha, the British at Gold and Sword, the Canadians at Juno.

Some have remained ever since under white crosses that stretch row on row across the green fields of Normandy. Not far away under other crosses of dark brown are the graves of the German defenders who opposed them on that day and in the bloody battle for Normandy that lasted through August.

The small town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise was the first reconquered.

"My father and I were in the courtyard with the one-armed German officer who was billeted at our house when we looked up to see the white patches in the sky," recalls Gallin, now a retired petroleum engineer.

"We thought they were parachutes but the German at first claimed they were planes the Germans had shot down. When there were more and more of them, he began firing his revolver in the sky and then ran off. We never saw him again.

"A few hours later, I had my first chewing gum and my father, a World War I pilot, was smoking a Camel."

The job of the 82nd was to take Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a centuries-old town of hardly more than 1,500 population, and thus cut the road and rail lines from Paris to prevent German reinforcements from reaching Utah beach seven miles to the east, where the 4th U.S. Division was to begin landing at 6:30 a.m.

The job of the 101st, the first on the ground behind the German coastal defenses, was to take the access roads and link up with the forces landing on the beach.

By 4:30 a.m. the town, with its strategic crossroads just off the town square, was in American hands. The flag went up at the town hall and then came down again to be saved as a souvenir. The linkup with Utah came only the next day.

But by late morning and early afternoon, the Germans had recovered from their surprise and artillery shells began falling on the town, which was not finally secured until two days later. In the meantime, inhabitants lived in ditches and trenches while much of the village was destroyed.

"Nothing but dead soldiers, dead horses and ruins," wrote the baker and one-time mayor, Andre Mace, who kept a laconic diary of the events that is now in the town's Airborne Museum.

There also is the handkerchief the passing paratrooper gave to 16-year-old Legoupillot and told her his mother instructed him to give it to the first pretty French girl he met.

"I never saw him afterward," she said last week in the Pre Sale restaurant she now runs (and makes the world's best mashed potatoes) where the butcher shop used to be, just off the town square. "I often wonder if he ever saw his mother again."

Visibility was bad for the drop. Many of the paratroopers never saw the ground until they hit it. Some others even landed in the ocean. Gliders crashed into the Normandy hedgerows or the fields of poles called Rommel asparagus that the Germans erected as defenses.

A soldier named John Steele made a footnote in the history books by snagging on the church steeple, where he hung for hours. A dummy paratrooper hangs there now as a reminder.

The best source for all this is Philippe Jutras, the volunteer American curator of the Airborne Museum that he has turned into one of the major monuments of that D-Day 50 years ago. He wasn't there on the day, but he has a story of his own to tell.

His outfit landed at Utah beach some six weeks later. And until it moved on toward Germany, he was taken in by the local family that still runs the dry goods store on the town square. He spent 20 years in the Army before going into politics and finally the Maine Senate as a "Muskie Democrat."

By 1972, he had had enough, and one day simply came to France, went back to the dry goods store, found that Antoinette Castel was still running it and was now a widow. Two years later, they were married. Today they live in the same rooms where the Castels lodged him 50 years ago.

Antoinette, too, remembers D-Day. When the German shelling began, she and her family had to leave the store and flee.

"My husband carried our 4-year-old son," she said. "I carried our papers, and my clerk carried a case with a ham and some butter."

Therese Leonard, the clerk, still works in the store for the Jutrases.

Founded by a former mayor in 1964, the Airborne Museum then was almost neglected when Jutras volunteered to take it over. Besides a glider, it now has an old C-47, a Sherman tank, a halftrack and several thousand exhibits in two buildings with roofs in the form of parachutes.

One is a V-mail letter of a few paragraphs a paratrooper wrote to his family a few hours before his unit took off to jump here. Signed only "Jim," his full name has been lost.

"Well tonight's the night," he began. ". . . If I don't come out of this thing I want my people (especially my Father) to know I gave every ounce of my strength and energy for what I believe I am fighting for. . . . Parachutists spread the attack, the infantry will come in a little later and relieve us. Chin up folks and carry on!"

He was killed on that June 6, 1944.

Jutras, still alert and spry at 77, is a recognized authority on the Normandy invasion and for his work, the French government has just made him a Chevalier in the Legion d'Honneur. Some 150,000 people a year now visit the museum, more than triple that when he began expanding it with every item he could beg or borrow from both veterans and townspeople.

The other date the town remembers is 1961 when part of the movie The Longest Day recounting the invasion was filmed here.

"One has the impression that it was all only yesterday," says Jeannette Legoupillot, now Jeannette Pentecote, talking in her restaurant about memories still fresh. "It was 50 years ago."

Towns throughout Normandy have scheduled several hundred events to mark this year's 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and the battles that followed as Allied armies took the key Normandy towns one by one until they rolled onto Paris in August.

Sainte-Mere-Eglise's main celebration for the veterans will be on June 5 and feature parachute jumps by members of the modern 82nd Airborne now stationed in Germany. A group of veterans in their 70s wants to jump as well, and a few have even practiced in California. Because of their age and the risks, the Army wants to say no.

On June 6, President Clinton is scheduled to visit nearby Utah beach as well as participating with Queen Elizabeth II, President Francois Mitterrand and other Allied leaders in the main ceremony at Omaha beach, where the bloodiest battles took place.

Months ago, Jutras began lobbying the White House by mail for Clinton to attend the Utah beach ceremony. Some townspeople hope that Clinton will find time to stop here as well.

Sainte-Mere-Eglise still has an active AVA association _ Amis des Veterans Americains (Friends of American Veterans). Those who make themselves known are always welcome.

For years until her death, the AVA was run by Simone Renaud, wife of the former mayor. One of her sons, the town pharmacist, is still active in planning for the more than 600 veterans and their families expected here for the 50th anniversary. More than half of them will be taken in, housed and fed by local families.

But the years are passing.

"This is their last hurrah," Jutras says of the American veterans expected this year.

Don Lassen, who organized the largest group of some 300 veterans and their families who will come, agrees.

"This will be the last big celebration," he says. Editor of Static Line, a monthly magazine for paratroop veterans published in College Park, Ga., he began organizing his tour two years ago, allowing for those coming to pay the $2,000 fee in advance by installment.

"We, too, believe it may be the last," said Marc Lefevre, the town's 43-year-old mayor, "and that's why we are going all out for it." He didn't yet know where the town would get the money for all the three days of events it is organizing.

Relations between France and the United States go up and down _ the latest being the negotiations for a new world trade agreement in which French farmers, including those of Normandy, blame the United States for most of their troubles.

"That has never had any effect here," Lefevre said. "We make a difference between those problems and our memories."