Lt. Col. Michael Burns wasn’t sure exactly what was inside the little brown box that arrived at his door in Fayetteville, NC, but the return address in the left corner gave him let it be known that he couldn’t open it right away.
The package had made the long journey to Sainte-Mère-Eglise, the first French village to be liberated from Nazi occupation by the legendary 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army on June 6, 1944. Every year since then, paratroopers of the division are traveling to Normandy to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day, a trip that was canceled this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Weeks later, Burns, a public affairs officer, set up the unopened box inside the 82nd Airborne Division Museum at Fort Bragg, surrounded by display cases filled with neatly preserved green service uniforms, shiny jump boots. and other relics from World War II.
He had assembled a group of paratroopers and a historian to participate in the unboxing as his team set up cameras and lights to capture the revelation.
History dominates the men and women of the 82nd. This is the type of story they live for.
Captain Darren Cinatl began to open the tightly wrapped package. The history buff has jumped to Normandy for the commemoration three times. Each time, he tries to imagine what it was like for young men without knowing it on the verge of history.
“Stand in front of the door of a C-47 and think about what this jump master saw on the night of June 5 as they left England, until June 6,” Cinatl said. “You can’t quite put yourself in their shoes, but you can only imagine what motivated them to fight the way they did.”
Beneath the brown paper was a keepsake box decorated with American decals – 500 handwritten postcards from the inhabitants of Sainte-Mère-Eglise inside.
After the celebrations were canceled in June, the city’s mayor, Alain Holley, organized an effort alongside the U.S. military in Europe to express his gratitude for the long-standing relationship they have with the division. Earlier in the year, the division had sent red and blue All American Division badges to children in town.
Holley grew up listening to her grandparents’ D-Day stories.
“No one should forget the sacrifices American soldiers made for France,” he told The Associated Press.
As Holley watched via video call, the group took turns reading the cards aloud.
“I’m so happy to write a few words from the ground that you know so well,” someone wrote. “Thanks to you, I am free to do so.”
Most were in English, but two soldiers were ready to translate the maps into French.
A 9-year-old named Gabriel told US soldiers his birthday was June 6. He wanted to thank them for the sacrifice they had made to free him.
During his visits to Normandy, Cinatl is always struck by the inhabitants’ understanding of American history, especially their knowledge of the ins and outs of the 82nd. Children in France know a lot more about American military history, he admits, than children in the United States.
“For them, it’s their family story,” he says.
Twelve thousand men of the 82nd joined the Allied forces on June 5 and 6, 1944 to liberate occupied France by the Germans. Thousands of people are blindly parachuted out of low-flying planes into unknown territory alongside the 101st Airborne Division.
The 82nd lost 1,100 soldiers during the campaign and those who survived are passing at a staggering rate, especially in a pandemic more deadly for the elderly.
Cinatl said keeping their stories alive is integral to the division’s future success.
“It is vitally important that this current generation continues this story,” he said.
A last postcard came from Christophe, a waiter in a restaurant on the Sainte-Mère-Eglise church square. He told American soldiers to look for the big guy in the Yankees cap when they return to Normandy next June.
“Show me this postcard and there will be a free beer for you,” he wrote.