Troops from the 82nd Airborne Division held a virtual unboxing of postcards from the people of Sainte-Mère-Église, France on Tuesday, in a post-COVID continuation of the division’s long-standing relationship with the village that began on the morning of June 6, 1944 — D-Day.
Before dawn that day, thousands of 82nd paratroopers floated into the village and surrounding countryside as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy. One soldier, John Steele, landed with his parachute caught on the steeple of the local church, a scene immortalized in “The Longest Day” and in-person at the historic church, where a parachute dummy hangs today in his honor.
Although Steele was wounded and captured by the Germans, Sainte-Mère-Église ultimately was the first French village liberated from Nazi occupation that day. An American flag went up in front of the town hall after the paratroopers secured the town.
In years before the present pandemic, members of the division have participated in regular commemorative events in the village, including a large airborne operation involving 600 paratroopers that marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014.
“Every year paratroopers cross the Atlantic to visit with the people of this small French town; conducting Airborne operations, learning about their shared history and giving…[local children] the patch of the All Americans,” said Lt. Col. Mike Burns, the division public affairs officer. Paratroopers who participate in the festivities usually hand their unit patch to children who gather at the drop zone to watch the commemorative event.
“The most humbling experience of all is going back and spending time with the people of the respective villages,” said Capt. Darren Cinatl, who participated in a 2019 commemorative event in Normandy.
This year’s in-person events were cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions imposed by the French government and U.S. military. Some of the traditions endured, however, thanks to video conferencing and ingenuity from U.S. Army Europe-Africa, 82nd Airborne, and French officials.
Soldiers from the division packaged and sent full-color unit patches via mail to the town’s children over the summer, who reciprocated the gift by sending a box full of holiday cards to the unit headquarters. The division’s command team also laid a wreath at a memorial on Fort Bragg to mark the battle’s 76th anniversary.
82nd Airborne officials, including Cinatl; the division chaplain, Lt. Col. Brian Koyn; and historian John Aarsen held an unboxing event for the cards at the division’s museum on Tuesday. Other officials, including the village’s new mayor, Alain Holley.
Many of the cards, written in a mixture of English and French, expressed a mixture of enduring gratitude for the division’s actions that day and regret that the traditional commemorative events couldn’t occur. Two linguists from the division –– Spc. Jared Wilkins and Spc. Clifford Scott — were on-hand to translate for the virtual audience.
“We are very sad to not have been able to see you this year,” read one card from two children, Liam and Emma. “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all that you have done for the French. Thank you for liberty.”
“I am nine years old, and I was born on the sixth of June,” wrote Gabriel, another child, who included a sketch of the historic church with a paratrooper dangling from the steeple. “Thank you for the sacrifice you were ready to make to free us.”
“The shared history is so appreciated in Normandy,” said Cinatl after reading several cards. “Suffice to say they have a better understanding than some of our schools here in the United States…You’re blown away when a someone who is 14 or 9 years old is giving you a history lesson.”
The Sainte-Mère-Église mayor, Holley, offered remarks set against a virtual background of the church steeple. “This year was very special because of the circumstances with COVID,” he explained. “Nobody can, and nobody should, forget the sacrifices that American soldiers did for France.”
“We have already started the planning for next year’s events,” Holley added.
One resident of Sainte-Mère-Église, a waiter at a restaurant on the church square, took a different approach in his note of gratitude. “I’m a tall guy with a Yankees cap. If you show me this postcard [next year], there’ll be a free beer in it for you!”
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.