A small town in the southern swamps of Normandy's Cotentin Peninsula is home to a story known to only the most ardent World War II historians and a fading number of veterans who served in the 82nd Airborne Division's 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment during the D-Day invasion.
The town is Graignes (GREN-yay). It is a symbol of the best of the Norman French and their unceasing affection for the young soldier-liberators who joined them on June 6, 1944. The history is of two peoples coming together by chance, not choice, and finding common cause. No better example exists for why the invasion took place.
South and slightly west of Carentan, a key objective of the Normandy invasion, is a large swampy area slightly smaller than the Okefenokee Swamp in the southeastern United States. To the French, the area is simply known as Le Marais – the wet lowland residue of the Douve and Merderet rivers and their interconnecting offspring. It is a boggy land cut with many canals and creeks. Small standing plots of relatively firm ground are a part of this landscape, which has been farmed for centuries by people who prospered in their isolation. The air is heavier around Graignes than it is on the rest of the peninsula, the humidity fed by the copious quantities of open and nearly stagnant water. On a warm day the air hangs heavy, giving rise to density currents.
The area has many similarities with swamps of the southern United States. The trees tend to blot out the horizon. The light, as it filters through the woods, casts an amber hue on whatever it strikes. The ground is a bit soft, bereft of rocks, and the surface dries fast into a powder. The roads pass darkly through the woods and are quickly lost to view. It is a lonely and isolated place where the few villages and farm communities are concealed. To a visitor who stumbles upon this area, it would be virtually impossible to visualize the significance it holds in American history.
In the center, on the largest and firmest ground, lies the village of Graignes. Inhabited since the time of the Vikings, it offered a safe haven off the path of surrounding and competing forces, away from civilization. At the highest point, fewer than 15 feet above sea level, stands the church, first constructed in the medieval era. Its present-day structure rises from the original foundation, which is how soldiers found it on June 6, 1944. Why and how it came to be a new building is the story.
Attached to the 82nd Airborne for the D-Day invasion, the 507th was the last regiment to be dropped. Its troop-carrier elements had no previous drop experience and flew into the peninsula under a potentially disastrous combination of bad weather, a low ceiling and fully aware German anti-aircraft forces. Elements of the 507th were scattered from the tip of the peninsula near Cherbourg to Omaha Beach and the English Channel. Those few “sticks” (20 to 23 paratroopers per stick) that were dropped on target quickly discovered that their zones were in the middle of the swamp. The majority of the 507th who survived the night did so because they were misdropped on or near the 505th drop zone, near Ste. Mère-Église. One part of the regiment, however, had an experience reminiscent of the Alamo, with the fervent support of people they had never met: the people of Graignes.
Around 2 a.m. June 6, 12 sticks of 3-507th PIR troopers landed relatively close together in the swampy land well south of Carentan. In the early-morning light, small groups of soldiers were able to see the steeple of the Graignes church and moved toward it as if drawn by a magnet. By 10 a.m., 25 soldiers led by Capt. Leroy Brummitt emerged on the edge of town. With the soldiers was an unusually large quantity of weapons and ammunition bundles – the residue of a regiment – machine guns, mortars and ammunition for both.
By noon, Maj. Charles Johnston, also from the 3-507th, arrived with more soldiers. The officers had a short debate. Brummitt thought it best to move immediately north toward Carentan and link up with elements of the 101st Airborne Division. Johnston thought that was too risky and believed it best to hold until relieved. Besides, Graignes was at the confluence of the few road nets that laced the area, all of which ended at Carentan, headquarters of the German defenses between Omaha and Utah beaches.
Graignes was to become an Alamo-like position with outposts guarding each road, machine-gun positions and mortar pits dug, and forward observers placed in the church tower. Over the rest of the day and night, small groups of soldiers emerged from the swamps and coalesced on the position. By nightfall on June 6, 182 soldiers, including 12 officers, manned the perimeter. Some were equally misdropped soldiers from the 101st.
Early in the morning of June 7, Johnston met with the mayor of Graignes, Alphonse Voydie, and the two attendant priests. He asked for the support of the village in retrieving supply bundles from the swamp and assistance in collecting food for the soldiers. He also asked permission, albeit a bit tardily, to use the church for his headquarters and a medical collection point. The mayor and priests readily agreed, but Voydie tempered his decision by saying that a vote of the entire town was needed due to the potential of a German reoccupation.
Virtually the entire population of the town quickly assembled in the church. The mayor described the issue and recommended support for the Americans. The parish, by a show of hands, unanimously agreed. The die was cast. The commitment was made despite the knowledge of an intermittent Gestapo presence and strict wartime occupation rationing and monitoring at the outlying village markets. The punishment for known or suspected support of the invaders would be immediate death.
Madame Germaine Boursier, owner of the only cafe/restaurant, assumed the task of food collection and distribution. The men and boys deployed throughout the area to collect bundles that had been dropped in the swamps. They recovered a large quantity of medical supplies, food, ammo, commo wire, telephones and weapons. However, there were no radios.
Boursier organized two food deliveries each day for the U.S. troops positioned in and around the village. Women of the village each added a little bit to their rations by buying just enough extra to not arouse suspicions. On June 8 and 9, this pattern was repeated without any contact with German forces.
On June 10, things changed.
It was midmorning when the forward observer in the church steeple saw a German column approach in administrative order, clearly not expecting resistance. The observer immediately notified the roadblock, which laid a Fort Benning-perfect linear ambush, virtually wiping out the column. Around 11 p.m., Germans began probing Graignes but made no significant entry. Ominously, one of the Germans shot had papers indicating that he was from a recon element of the 17th SS Panzer Division.
At 10 a.m. June 11, the townspeople and many Catholic U.S. soldiers entered the church, which had become an active aid station and command center, for Sunday Mass. Partway through the service, a villager burst through the door shouting that the Germans were attacking. The U.S. soldiers raced to the rear of the church, grabbed their weapons, bolted through the door and ran to their positions. Mortar and artillery fire began landing in the village. Small-arms ricochets rattled off the stones and slate roofs. The villagers, at the mayor's urging, decided to remain inside the church and wait out the attack.
By 2 p.m. that day, the Germans were spotted in a distant field establishing a battery of 88mm antitank guns. At the same time, a determined infantry attack hit several points in and around the village. The Germans combined mortar and artillery attacks but were unable to break the defensive lines. However, U.S. casualties began to mount. The wounded were collected by villagers and soldiers and deposited inside the church, which by this time was a fully engaged casualty collection point. The two village priests and their aged housekeepers assisted the few medics and a 3-507th doctor in treating the casualties.
As night fell, the villagers either went back to their farms or chose to remain with friends in the village. The defenders then heard the unmistakable sounds of mechanized vehicles. German artillery and mortar elements began to heavily engage the village. The primary target was the church steeple, which they hit on successive occasions – killing the forward observer and Johnston – thereby eliminating the most effective fire support for the defenders. Successive barrages also materially reduced the mortar crews who were dug in within the church cemetery. The loss of the previously effective indirect fire reduced the 3-507th's ability to defend its outposted positions.
Regardless of the loss of mortar support, the defenders still exacted a heavy price from the attackers. The narrow roads and limited dry ground forced the Germans to attack on restricted terrain, making them vulnerable to the paratroopers' ability to use interior lines and the firepower of the machine guns and automatic rifles. Hundreds of German bodies littered each lane as the afternoon wore on. However, the sheer weight of arms began to take a toll. One by one, each roadblock disintegrated under a combination of casualty attrition, effective German indirect fire and infantry numbers. By 5 p.m., much of the village was captured. Brummitt, now in command, ordered the survivors to escape into the swamps and move north to Carentan, where it was assumed the 101st would be.
At 10 p.m., life in Graignes changed dramatically with the arrival of the headquarters of the 17th SS Panzer Division. The unit had suffered an embarrassing near-defeat from a force of fewer than 200 paratroopers. It counted more than 500 killed in the approaches to the town and were treating more than 700 wounded. The commanding general arrived at the church in an angry, vengeful mood.
The Germans quickly took the U.S. wounded, the medics and the doctor to the edge of the swamp and executed them in two groups. Separately, they marched the two priests into the rectory and summarily executed them. They then burned the remainder of the church and rectory but not before shooting the two old housekeepers in their beds. Sweeping through the town, they rounded up 44 villagers.
They were herded into the remains of the church, and the SS began individual interrogations to determine who the village leaders were. In particular, they wanted the names of the mayor and those who supported the U.S. soldiers. They knew the Americans must have had significant local support. Despite a night's worth of threats and beatings, none of the 44 villagers gave up a name.
Frustrated at the lack of cooperation, the commander ordered the village to be ransacked. Houses were broken into. Windows, furniture and possessions were destroyed or appropriated. Any food was taken, and clothes burned or torn apart. On June 13, the village was burned. The villagers were banned from attempting to douse the flames. The fire consumed 66 homes, the village school, Boursier's cafe, and the furniture, pews and remains of the church. More houses were scorched or intentionally damaged. By the end of the day, only two of 200 houses remained unscathed. The now homeless villagers gathered what possessions they had and moved to outlying farms to shelter with friends and face an uncertain future.
On June 13, on the most distant farm – which was still less than a mile away – the Rigault family began its morning routine. The two daughters, Marthe and Odette, moved from the house to tend to the livestock and the barn. Odette noticed several paratroopers moving furtively on the edge of the farm where the firm ground ended and the swamp began. On her own initiative, the 13-year-old girl ran to the soldiers and led them into the barn.
Pointing to the hayloft, she motioned them up the ladder and raced to the house to inform her parents. Over the course of the day, she and her sister walked the swamp edge and recovered more soldiers, always pointing them toward the barn. By late afternoon, 21 soldiers were in the hayloft. Madame Rigault began to feed them what little food the family possessed. Always mindful of possible German observation, she distributed the food in small, hidden quantities with the girls, who disguised their movements as part of the daily farming routine. On several occasions Germans checked for Americans, but the family always appeared to be isolated and alone.
The soldiers had hoped that the 101st would eventually move through the area. By June 15, the troops agreed that this hope was probably in vain. One soldier, a Louisiana Cajun, was enlisted to talk to Monsieur Rigault about the best route through the swamp to Carentan. Rigault went to several of his neighbors to develop a plan. He engaged 15-year-old Joe Folliot, who was familiar with the confusing maze of canals, creeks and outlets of the ancient swampland.
At 10 p.m., Joe appeared at the edge of the farm with a punt boat that could hold five soldiers. He began the long process of poling through the swamp, landing the troops on a spot past the German outposts and pointing them in the direction of Carentan. This process continued throughout the night. Several times, soldiers tried to give Joe money or small gifts. He refused with a whispered, “Merci, American ... merci, American.”
By June 16, 150 of the 3-507th troops had gained the front lines of the 101st – those left from the 182 who assembled at Graignes on June 6.
The troopers of the 101st might have provided the Graignes survivors a warmer reception had they known how important the stand of the misdropped 3-507th troopers had been to their own survival. The 17th Panzer had been ordered to reinforce the German headquarters at Carentan, but it did not get there before the 101st was able to capture the city on June 12. The chance encounter at Graignes, the intense combat and the inordinate casualties kept the division from reinforcing Carentan. Had it passed through Graignes without incident, the 101st would have had a much more serious problem.
History and memory took a long pause at this point. The war went on, peace arrived, and the town of Graignes managed to rebuild, isolated, as always, from the rest of the world. The quiet rural life went on with neither the American survivors nor the villagers aware of each others' destinies.
In 1984, however, several survivors from the 507th, led by former Lt. Frank Naughton, made their first return trip to Normandy. They decided that they had to visit Graignes, where they had experienced one of the most dramatic moments in their lives. There, they reunited with the Rigault sisters, both married and middle-aged but still cognizant of the individual soldiers and overjoyed at their return. For the first time, the sisters and the villagers learned of the fate of the soldiers they had harbored, and the soldiers of the consequences of their support.
The sisters introduced the veterans to the mayor, priests and villagers. They showed them the rebuilt church. The town spontaneously celebrated. The veterans were overwhelmed at the reception, especially in light of the price the village had paid for its support.
The veterans returned to the United States buoyed by the spirit of the village. They petitioned then-Secretary of the Army John Marsh Jr. to recognize the village and what it had done at such a great price. Marsh was a dedicated historian and Airborne-qualified. He studied at length the slim material available regarding Graignes, questioned survivors, and concluded that what occurred there was truly unique and demanded recognition.
On July 6, 1986, Marsh visited Graignes with a number of 507th veterans and presented 11 villagers with the Distinguished Civilian Service Award. Six were posthumous. The church was rededicated and a plaque describing the events was posted on its side. A Mass was held to both celebrate and remember.
Most villagers who survived the occupation have since died. However, every D-Day anniversary, younger generations of Graignes assemble by the church and recount the events of that day and the memory of their predecessors, who made a wise but costly decision. Sometimes a veteran or active-duty soldier participates in the assembly, but U.S. attendance is not the purpose of the gathering. The village remembers what it did and why, and that is all that matters.
Keith Nightingale is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served two tours in Vietnam. He commanded airborne battalions in both the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division, and later commanded both the 1/75th Rangers and the 1st Ranger Training Brigade. He leads historical battlefield tours and presentations for military personnel who visit Normandy, France, each year for the anniversary of the D-Day invasion.