Notes from France honor American soldiers' D-Day sacrifice

Lt. Col. Michael Burns wasn't sure what was in the little brown box that arrived on his doorstep in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but the return address in the left corner let him know he couldn't open it right away.
The parcel had made the long journey from Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first French village to be liberated from Nazi occupation by the famous 82nd Airborne Division of the US Army on June 6, 1944. Since then, division paratroopers have traveled to Normandy every year to celebrate the anniversary of D-Day, a trip that was canceled this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
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Weeks later, a public affairs officer, Burns, deposited the unopened box at the 82nd Airborne Division Museum at Fort Bragg, surrounded by glass cases with perfectly preserved green service uniforms, shiny jump boots, and other WWII relics.
He had gathered a group of paratroopers and a historian to participate in the unboxing when his team set up cameras and lights to capture the reveal.
History plays a big part in the men and women of the 82nd. That's the kind of story they live for.
Captain Darren Cinatl began to tear open the tightly wrapped package. The history buff jumped three times to commemorate Normandy. Each time he tries to imagine what it was like for the young men who were unwittingly on the verge of history.
"To stand in the doorway of a C-47 and think about what this show jumping champion saw on the night of June 5th when they left England on June 6th," 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."
Under the brown paper was a storage box decorated with American decals - 500 handwritten postcards from the residents of Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
After the June celebrations were canceled, the city's Mayor Alain Holley joined forces with US Army Europe to organize efforts to thank them for the longstanding relationship they share with the division. Earlier this year the division had sent red and blue patches from the All American Division to the town's children.
Holley grew up listening to D-Day stories from his grandparents.
"Nobody should forget the sacrifices American soldiers made for France," he told The Associated Press.
While Holley watched on the video call, the group took turns reading the cards aloud.
"I am so glad to write a few words from the ground that you know so well," someone wrote. "Thanks to you I can do this."
Most of them were in English, but two soldiers were ready to translate the French maps.
A 9-year-old child named Gabriel told U.S. soldiers his birthday was June 6th. He wanted to thank them for the sacrifice they had made to set him free.
During his visits to Normandy, Cinatl is always impressed with the locals' understanding of US history, especially how well they know the pros and cons of the 82nd. Children in France know a lot more about American military history than children in the United States.
"For them, it's their family history," he said.
Twelve thousand men of the 82nd joined the Allied forces on June 5 and 6, 1944, to liberate Germany-occupied France. Thousands of people fell blindly from low-flying planes into unknown territory next to the 101st Airborne Division.
The 82nd lost 1,100 soldiers in the campaign and those who survived are dying at an amazing rate, especially in a pandemic that is deadlier to the elderly.
Cinatl said keeping their stories alive is critical to the division's future success.
"It is vital that this current generation continue that story," he said.
One last postcard came from Christophe, a waiter in a restaurant on the church square in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. He told American soldiers to look for the tall man in the Yankees hat when they return to Normandy next June.
"Show me this postcard and there will be a free beer in it for you," he wrote.

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