SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE, 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.
"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.