I was born June 5th, 1938, and lived on
the Number 14 crossing of the railroad that connected Cherbourg and Coutances,
and that also wound down south into Brittany. My home, out in the country,
was about 1500 meters as the crow flies from Periers. This big town was in
the center of the Department of the Manche, and was a junction of roads that
led to Valognes and Cherbourg to the north, Carentan and Saint Lo to the east,
and Coutances to the south...
I did not know of all the events during June 6th, 1944, as I was just 6 years
old, and was living a carefree life, just as I did not understand much about
the German Occupation, or the restrictions and difficulties of living.
It wasn't until later that I understood that these crossroads and railroads
at Periers were the key roads for the invasion of the Allied Armies. I do
not have any memory of my early childhood - my parents and my close friends
would explain that time to me. I was a pampered child, living in his dreams
and games. I don't even know if we celebrated my birthday on June 5th.
However, my mind was opened to reality
on June 6th, 1944, and on this day my first very real memory was created,
and I will never forget it:
First off in the morning, my oldest sister Janine, who was 12 years old, and
I were in our parents' bed to play with our little sister Marie-Cecile, who
was 2 years old.
Suddenly there was a tremendously loud noise, and the house shook. The windows
panes in the windows fell in pieces on the floor. A bomb had fallen just 10
meters from the house, on papa's garden. Mom took us and rapidly exited the
house to hide behind an old shed under the nettles. I remember this well because
the nettles hurt.
Then she took us 200 meters away from there, to our only neighbors, the Leroussel
Family, who were farmers. They were: the mother Julia, the father Auguste,
who lost an arm in World War I, and their three adult offspring Augustine,
Pierre, and Marie.
Quickly, everyone went to a ditch behind the farm. I became aware, little
by little, that during the bombings, it was necessary to leave the houses
and seek refuge within the lower contours of the ground in the surrounding
countryside. But that day, in the ditch, I saw the planes drop their bombs.
I discovered that the bombs fell diagonally towards the ground while, when
I throw a stone, it falls straight to the ground.
A few minutes later, I learned that nearly 10% of the 2000 inhabitants of
Periers were killed.
After, perhaps, the next day, I discovered
a country road that led to Cornons, a village 1-2 kilometers away. Some adults
had hastily constructed an immense shelter in a low area on this road, which
was typical to find in the hedged farmland of Normandy, by placing logs, boards,
and sheet metal topped with straw and dirt across an embankment which was
2-3 meters in height. Several families from the area gathered there, perhaps
I had not been affected by this short outing, as without doubt it was, because
of my youth, a marvelous adventure. However, there rests with me a violent
and horrible memory. In the night, I was awoken by an unknown noise, as if
some evil animals passed over our shelter - there was whistling, followed
by long screaming; it was the firing of artillery on a clear night in June!
We then departed this exodus to the south.
Pierre Leroussel and Dad arrived with a cart that contained blue hay from
the farm. Underneath, there were miscellaneous objects for me: some mattresses,
bags of potatoes, and I don't know what else. Harnessed to the cart, in between
the wooden extensions, was a very old, gray horse that was normally used to
work in the fields, preceded by a large brown donkey, who was my friend, Lubin.
During the course of the road, although I don't know where precisely, the
various carts followed one another down a long, straight path, during which
an aircraft passed overhead and dropped a bomb. I heard some yelling, and
found myself with all the others, in the ditch, and I noticed for a second
time that bombs fell diagonally - these fell at a further distance.
How many days would our exodus last? I don't know, as at 6 years of age time
doesn't mean much. We lived day to day, protected by the grown ups. Then,
we found ourselves on a beautiful farm (I found out later that it was La Selle
en Cogles, near to Fougeres).
The only powerful memory that I have from
this stay seems amazing: the farmer brought to us from time to time a very
large, round loaf of bread, baked in his wood burning oven. It was a beautiful
golden bread that smelled good (an odor that was previously unknown to me).
And when Mom sliced it, I saw that the interior was white. In addition, it
was delicious; a real treat!
I say today that this day in the summer of 1944, was the day when I discovered,
in a short amount of time, the happiness of the world - a generous man came
and offered three pleasures of the senses simultaneously - beauty, taste,
and smell. And, additionally, the fruit of his daily labor.
We made the return trip, without doubt
in August, after the Allied Armies had gone past us. I only have two very
different memories from this voyage. Somewhere along the road, some German
soldiers' bodies were in the ditch, and the stench was terrible. Two or Three
men tried to take their boots, but Pierre Leroussel and Dad opposed them,
with the one argument We don't steal from the dead. This had remained in my
head, and is, without doubt on that day, when I concluded that Pierre and
Dad were Good Men. However, the others were not.
That evening or the next day, we were welcomed at another farm. There remains
in me an extraordinary visual memory: 4,5, or 6 work horses descended, one
behind the other, towards the watering trough. These horses were very muscular
and covered in sweat.
Then we returned to our small house at
the No. 14 railroad crossing!
I don't know how it had been repaired. I found there, once again, during the
passing days, a calm and carefree life in my little world, in the heart of
In waiting for October 1st, my first return to school, the main activity of
kids at that time was to go and watch the passing of American supply convoys
from the side of the national road, located 400 meters from our home.
I almost lost my life there:
Enormous trucks of bizarre green color passed at a fast speed . On board were
negro soldiers who were always chewing. They threw to us candy and chocolate
bars, and especially the famous chewing gum that made me understand why their
jaws were always moving. Without caution, we dived at these magnificent gifts.
I myself quickly dived towards one of these treasures, which was a small piece
of candy in the middle of the road, while a truck arrived at a high rate of
speed. I had the time to see, in the negro driver's eyes, tremendous fright.
Someone grabbed me at the last moment. The stereotype of negroes that I had
had previously was that they were savages or inferior men. Because of this
fearful look that is permanently engraved in my subconscious mind, it is perhaps
why I developed this idea that they were our equal, and, like us, were capable
of good as well as bad.
I have never known the name of this negro American soldier, who expressed
a terrible fear of killing a little white French boy, but I will never forget
his big white eyes on a very dark face; it was a learning experience for me.
We went and did our shopping in a large
field behind our house, where there had been an American military encampment.
There we found leftovers from the land of abundance - America; some cans of
corned-beef (curiously enough, the adults called it monkey meat), which Mom
prepared for us like any leftover. We also found chocolate, and overall, toothpaste,
which was still a novelty. What a tasty experience to brush one's teeth in
the morning! One day, my older sister and I found and brought home a box of
canned goods that weighed 5 kilograms. It was heavy. Mom opened a can, and
discovered orange marmalade with small pieces of skin. What a treat!
Slowly, our tranquil life resumed... New
products became available. One morning, before leaving for school, Mom said,
Rene, this morning you are going to taste real coffee, and you are going to
see how good it is! Not only was it good, but the aroma I enjoy it every
morning with my coffee (and milk) even 60 years later.
Then the trains began to recirculate. My parents, employed by SNCF (a French
electric train company), were able to get us free train tickets to Bretagne
so we could go and see our family. During the return, I made a discovery.
Our train, which ran from Dol to Coutances, stopped for some minutes at the
train station of Folligny to allow the passing of the train running from Paris
to Granville. Mom profited from this time by giving us our afternoon snack
that we normally had at 4 p.m. She buttered our bread, and then, with an air
of mystery, she brought out and opened a small, flat metal can, and then squashed
3-4 small fish on our slices of bread. This was the first time that I saw
and tasted sardines in oil.
The memories of a kid are a bit strange,
and are connected to emotions sometimes violent, sometimes simple, and sometimes
sweet, but are forever written into our minds.
Giving it my all to learn to read and write at the little school, I rediscovered
my universe, which was, for the most part, a grove of trees 100 meters from
my small home. There, I watched the squirrels, listened to the birds or picked
wild strawberries at the foot of a slope. For several months, a German hand
grenade remained in open sight at the top of the embankment - we were not
allowed to touch it. It was a symbol of dark and frightening years that had
It was a German prisoner, working on a nearby farm, who came to take care
of it. The pin had not been pulled, so the grenade was not armed. The German
pulled the pin, and threw it. This made an enormous noise, causing the squirrels
and birds to flee. But I think, just the same, that the German was nice he
took away from us the anxiety that the grenade had caused us.
Deservedly so, the bomb hole of June 6th
gave years of enjoyment for me, as well as for my friends. The bomb had brought
the clay to the surface, and we hollowed out places in the clay to form galleries
and hiding places for those things that we considered treasures at that youthful
We created there an imaginary universe, as do all kids everywhere, as we waited
to become adults that discover hatred and war to be omnipresent.