Normandy locals welcome Ramstein Airmen for family dinner

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Rose Gudex
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Every year the streets of the small towns along the coast of Normandy are lined with banners and posters, flags are strung across the streets, and windows are painted with parachutists and C-47 aircraft in honor of D-Day. The locals of Normandy excitedly celebrate through the streets and at events, welcoming American service members to the area.

Part of the celebration includes a family dinner night where U.S. military are paired with a local French family and welcomed into their homes. This year for D-Day 79, 200 Airmen and Soldiers were paired with families in Sainte-Mère-Église, France, June 1, 2023.

The family dinners kicked off D-Day celebrations at the Town Hall of Sainte-Mère-Église, where military members from both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army who are stationed overseas and stateside mingled with local Normandy families. When a good connection was made, the family invited military members for dinner.

Some families cooked dinner, some explored the historic sites in the area before taking their service members out to dinner, but all enjoyed a shared interest in celebrating the liberation of Normandy and the sacrifices of the service members who stormed its beaches 79 years ago.

Catherine Shelton and her American husband Tom took two U.S. Air Force members from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to a few local sites before heading to a restaurant. While the Sheltons no longer live in Normandy, they regularly return and both have different, strong ties to Normandy.

Catherine grew up on a farm in Fontenay sur Mer, but at the time of the war she wasn’t born yet and her mother lived there until the Nazi regime took over the family’s land and turned it into a headquarters building. This was one of the places they drove by with the Airmen before dinner. Catherine said their family, and many others, watched as their lands were taken over and much of Normandy was destroyed.

About thirty minutes north, the man who would later become Catherine’s father was forced to work for the Germans. He escaped and was on the run when D-Day occurred.

“D-Day is significant because it came after a difficult time in Normandy,” she said. “Families were never the same after that.”

The people of Normandy are eternally grateful to the Americans who came in 1944 because D-Day changed the course of the war and stopped the oppression from continuing. Catherine said the people of Normandy don’t like to talk about the war, but instead talk about the liberation.

“We want to remember the people and celebrate the American military who came to our beaches and did incredible acts of heroism,” she said.

Everyone in the local area grew up going to the celebrations each year and their stories are passed down from generation to generation, Catherine said. Everyone knows the stories and loves to celebrate the liberation.

Even the owner of the restaurant the Shelton’s took their Airmen to, Francois, said the impact of D-Day in 1944 cannot be emphasized enough because everyone has a connection to it.

“My parents talked about what they went through on D-Day and they remember seeing the sky full of paratroopers in Cherbourg,” Francois said. “Everything was destroyed and the Americans came to liberate us. We cannot thank the Americans enough for what they did so many years ago.”

The restaurant, along with so many others, has a photo of American Soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day hung on the wall to always remember the sacrifices made by a previous generation. The locals are not the only ones with generations of ties to D-Day or the military.

Tom’s father was a U.S. Army C-47 pilot who flew the “Hump” during World War II, and while he wasn’t in Normandy, he contributed to the overall downfall of the Nazi party while flying in Germany. The legacy of American military service continued when Tom joined the U.S. Army and his son followed in his footsteps when he joined the U.S. Marines and later became a CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army.

The family history and connections over a shared meal was an enriching experience. U.S. Air Force Capt. Eric Leverenz, 37th Airlift Squadron C-130 pilot, was one of the Airmen who dined with the Sheltons and said the experience was something he will never forget.

“Catherine’s history was very interesting to hear about, especially when she talked about how her father did his best to resist the occupation,” he said. “We got to see parts of the Atlantic wall, and knowing it was built by people like her father with forced labor made it much more meaningful.”

Leverenz said the 37th AS, which is a descendent of the 37th Troop Carrier Group that dropped parachutists on D-Day, has a saying that they “stand on the shoulders of giants” and that he never felt that more keenly than when supporting D-Day 79 events.

“It reminds me how privileged we are for the reputation we have,” he said. “It was paid for in blood, sweat and tears by people like Catherine’s father, her husband’s father as a C-47 pilot, and all our veterans.”

Like many of the residents in Normandy, the conversation wasn’t focused on the destruction, but turned to the liberation and bravery of the service members who stormed the beaches the Airmen and the Sheltons stood on 79 years later.

Through a few courses, the dinner conversation turned to military history and family legacies, a shared interest in aircraft and also cheese.

“I loved getting to share a meal with them!” Leverenz said. “The opportunity for conversation with the Sheltons and also the restaurant owner was something that will be a highlight of my experience here.”

From the unwavering heroism and bravery displayed at D-Day 79 years ago to the current military members attending and supporting D-Day 79 ceremonies, Catherine said Normandy residents are happy to welcome the American military.

“We can never pay back the lives lost, but we want to honor them and celebrate the liberation with Americans,” she said.

Not only do the many ceremonies and aircraft flyovers allow Normandy to celebrate their freedom from oppression, but the family dinners that kick off the D-Day celebrations every year are just a small piece to continuing partnerships and remembering those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.