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How this Normandy town remembers the American sacrifice at D-Day

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Image: Henry-Jean Renaud holds a photo of himself after the liberation outs
Henry-Jean Renaud holds a photo of himself after the liberation outside of the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-eglise in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.   -   Copyright  Lucie Mach
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SAINTE-MERE-EGLISE, France — After the D-Day landings, Henri-Jean Renaud's mother soothed grieving hearts across the U.S.

Simone Renaud began corresponding with American women after Life magazine ran a photo of her laying flowers at the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. The oldest son of the former president had led the first wave of U.S. troops onto Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, and died weeks later.

"The letters came from families of lost boys. My mother wrote back. She went to the graves, took a picture, laid some flower petals," said Renaud.

A model depicting the D-Day landings in Colleville-sur-mer mayor\'s office, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.
A model depicting the D-Day landings in Colleville-sur-mer mayor\'s office, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.Lucie Mach

The letters begged his mother, the wife of the mayor of the first town to be liberated by the largest seaborne invasion in history, to find and tend the graves of men who died during the decisive struggle to liberate Europe. Simone Renaud responded to the Americans who has sacrificed for her and her family to be free from Nazi occupation.

"My parents, especially my mother, were very devoted to the Americans," said Renaud, who was 10 when the invasion happened.

The remains of more than 9,380 American military personnel lie in the nearby Normandy American Cemetery — most of whom died during D-Day or in the operations that followed the landings.

There But Not There installation at Utah beach, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.
There But Not There installation at Utah beach, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.Lucie Mach

Renaud, aged 85, showed NBC News a handwritten ledger of names, rows and numbers — a list of the fallen servicemen's graves his mother found and looked after. He still has binders full of correspondence and photographs.

"My mother sent and received thousands of letters — I only kept a few," said Renaud from his neat home in the town of Sainte-Mère-Église.

Renaud's pretty town is also part of history.

Early on D-Day, paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne and U.S. 101st Airborne Divisions descended on Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy. The battle for the town and its inhabitants are described in the book and movie "The Longest Day."

The bond between the town and the American military remains strong.

The photo in Life magazine showing Henry-Jean Renaud\'s mother, Simone Renaud, laying flowers at the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr.,  in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.
The photo in Life magazine showing Henry-Jean Renaud\'s mother, Simone Renaud, laying flowers at the grave of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.Lucie Mach

Just two days before the D-Day celebrations, Renaud's home was aflutter as his wife and her sister prepared a dinner for senior U.S. Air Force officers, who are coming to town for ceremonies to honor the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It is a tradition in Sainte-Mère-Église to host American servicemen on these anniversaries.

Air Force Sgt. Blake Covey of the 416th Civil Affairs Battalion was one of the many in Normandy for the anniversary celebrations. The visit had been "breathtaking," said the native of Orange County, California.

"The hospitality of this village and neighboring villages is humbling," Covey said as he stood in the village's main square. This bond between some Norman towns liberated by the Allies and the U.S. wasn't taught much in schools in the U.S., he noted.

"They are treating us as if we took part in this day — it makes me feel not worthy," Covey said of the townspeople.

Church in Sainte-mere-eglise, where a fake parachutist hangs on the bell tower in memory of John Steele, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.
Church in Sainte-mere-eglise, where a fake parachutist hangs on the bell tower in memory of John Steele, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.Lucie Mach

Today, a dummy paratrooper hangs from the church tower in Sainte-Mère-Église has — a tribute to Private John Steele of the 82nd 505th Regiment who was shot on his descent and dangled for hours from the church tower, playing dead, on June 6, 1944.

Renaud remembers that morning, when wave after wave of C-47 transport planes roared above. His father woke him up when a fire engulfed a building behind the church. The main square was full of townspeople trying to douse the flames.

There was a fierce battle, as German soldiers shot at American paratroopers falling from the sky.

"It was a real mess," Renaud said. "It was the first time I had seen a man dead."

Standing in the Airborne Museum in town, he points to where he saw dead paratroopers hanging from trees.

"For me, it is not a museum — it is a memory. Every time I come here I remember these guys," he says. "Some people say, 'Oh, you remember.' I say, 'No, I never forget.'"

Andree Auvray, 93, resident of Sainte-Mere-eglise. She was 8 months pregnant on June 6th 1944, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.
Andree Auvray, 93, resident of Sainte-Mere-eglise. She was 8 months pregnant on June 6th 1944, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.Lucie Mach

Like Renaud, Andrée Auvray has not forgotten the German occupation and the American liberation.

"We couldn't be in our own living room," said Auvray, 93, explaining that her family had been forced to share their home with German troops during the invasion. She remembers the danger of smuggling food from the countryside to Paris in hat boxes.

"We were always asking ourselves — what will happen to us?" said Auvray, who was heavily pregnant at the time. "If the Americans hadn't come, what would have become of us."

And like so many others in the village, Auvray's family is making annual dinner for American servicemen.

This year her daughter is serving a regional specialty, turkey in a sauce of cream and mushrooms — escalope à la Normande.

A remembrance cross in Utah Beach, village of Sainte-Marie du Mont, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.
A remembrance cross in Utah Beach, village of Sainte-Marie du Mont, in Normandy, France on June 4, 2019.Lucie Mach