I wrote this after our 1993 honeymoon French bike trip…
“I am sorry for my English,” Jean Leloup said.
Fortunately, his wife, Genevieve, spoke perfect English. And, like many married couples who have been together for decades, the Leloups know what the other is about to say before they say it. Genevieve, who has heard this story hundreds of times, was able to fill in the appropriate words when her husband’s English failed him.
We were standing on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. The wind was whipping off the English Channel and the waves were crashing against the 100-foot cliffs.
All I could think was: How did they do it? How did the U.S. Army Rangers scale these cliffs on D-Day (June 6, 1944) with the Germans hunkered down up above, firing down on them, and take control of this piece of the high ground now filled with the craters left by the Allied bombers and the burnt-out remains of the concrete German bunkers?
It was an impossible mission.
And yet they did it.
“My family lived in Lion-sur-Mer,” Jean began. This is a tiny resort town on the eastern edge of the Normandy invasion beaches. The Brits landed here, on what they called Sword Beach. We cycled through Sword Beach a few days ago.
“The invasion was the day of my 18thbirthday,” Jean continued. “The sea was covered with ships and at seven in the morning we saw four German soldiers with wheelbarrows full of mines burying them in the sand on the beach. The Germans passed right by us and didn’t say a word. A few minutes later the shooting started, and I have never run so fast in my life. I did not have legs, I had wings. Our house was 300 meters from the beach and we stayed in the shelter (in the basement) for three days and did not know what was going on.
“Finally, my father said, ‘Now I go out and see what is going on.’ He walked toward the beach and came around a corner and saw a British commando, with his face painted black. He saw my father and dropped to the ground, as did the other commandoes, and they all had their guns pointed toward my father. Fortunately, an officer in charge spoke French and my father warned them about the mines, and showed then which way to go. My father ran back to our shelter and he had chocolates and cigarettes they had given him.”
The Leloups live in nearby Caen, and are preparing for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Tens of thousands of tourists will visit this stretch of sand where more than 154,000 American and British troops launched the greatest invasion in history, signaling the beginning of the end for Hitler.
“There are no bedrooms left within 100 kilometers,” Jean said of the upcoming anniversary, which is a year away. “All our friends from the United States and Canada have already called asking to stay with us. We have no more room.”
The Leloups are now part of the story of D-Day. Everyone around here 60 and up has a story to tell. And, at Pointe du Hoc and other invasion sights, cemeteries and museums, you can often meet former American GIs who landed on that fateful day and during the chaos of the next few weeks. At the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, we met a schoolteacher from Ohio whose father flew gliders in the war and made it home.
The Ohio teacher was at the cemetery, which has close to 10,000 graves, looking for her cousin, a soldier who died on D-Day. She had pictures of her father, who passed away recently, and all the letters he sent home from France in a scrapbook she brought with her to Normandy.
Later that day, we saw her at Point du Hoc, and she introduced us to Jean and Genevieve Leloup. The teacher was visiting them as part of an exchange program. Jean, now retired, was a businessman and politician, and he attended the 40thanniversary of D-Day ceremonies.
“I met President Reagan,” he said of the 1984 event. “It was a great honor and I will be here (at Point du Hoc) for the ceremonies again (for the 50thanniversary).
FYI: I travelled to Normandy with the U.S. Army Rangers for the 55thanniversary of D-Day, six years later, in 1999. I had met, interviewed and written about one of the Rangers, Sid Salomon, for the newspaper I worked for at the time, the Bucks County Intelligencer. Sid – an amazing man and a real hero – invited me along on the Rangers’ trip, and it was probably my most memorable experience in all my years as a newspaper reporter. You can read more about Sid and the Rangers, as well as a lot more about biking in my eBook Biking Normandy
There’s a plaque honoring Sid at the American Cemetery in Normandy…