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Inspired by Normandy

Published on -5/1/2014, 3:44 PM

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By Gary Demuth

The Salina Journal

If not for a family tragedy, Dominique Francois might never have become a historian.

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If not for a family tragedy, Dominique Francois might never have become a historian.

In 1940, Francois' grandfather was a widower tending a farm near the beaches of Normandy when the German army occupied France. Soldiers built a series of bunkers on his grandfather's land to fortify the peninsula in the case of a possible invasion, much to his grandfather's displeasure.

"It was a hard time for my grandfather," Francois said Tuesday by phone from his home in Normandy. "There were so many Germans everywhere. My grandfather was an officer during the first world war and didn't want anything to do with war ever again."

Francois' grandfather lived on the farm with his three young sons and adopted niece. His wife had died in 1943.

On June 5, 1944, as German soldiers manned the bunkers preparing for an invasion, aircraft began dotting the sky at about 10 p.m. Bombs began to drop, and three hit directly on the farmhouse.

Two of the boys, one of whom would be Francois' father, were thrown from the house by the force of the impact.

Shaken but unhurt, the boys ran to a nearby village, where many other homes had been destroyed by bombs, and found shelter in a church. The next day, June 6, American paratroopers arrived in the village and rescued the two brothers.

After the area had been secured by the invading Allied Army, the Americans took the brothers back to their farm, where they found the body of their father in the bombed out rubble. He had died shielding their other brother, who was still alive. The niece was found alive a few days later.

Francois' father was just 10 years old at the time.

"My father liked to say that June 5, even though it was a terrible day when he lost his father, was a great time because of the American GIs, who gave them chocolate bars and rations and took care of them," Francois said. "He said he would never forget what the American soldiers did for our country."

Stories an inspiration

Growing up hearing his father's stories of Normandy inspired Francois to become an historian and author, specializing in the events of D-Day and the subsequent Normandy military campaign. He has written 15 books on the subject and has served as a consultant for the History Channel, NBC and Inertia Films.

Francois, who still lives in Normandy, will present a program entitled "Normandy: Before and After D-Day," at 1 p.m. Friday in the auditorium at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home. His visit is made possible through the William T. Kemper Foundation.

Francois also will speak in Salina at 7 p.m. Friday in Sams Chapel on the Kansas Wesleyan University campus.

During both programs, Francois will give a visual presentation and discuss the Nazi occupation of Normandy, the Allied invasion and the liberation of France.

Respect for Americans, British

"In Normandy, people have a special interest and respect for Americans and the British," he said. "They know how much your country paid to free them. Normandy is like the 51st state. You see everyone there with American flags."

A limited number of copies of Francois' book "Normandy: From D-Day to the Breakout: June 6-July 31, 1944" will be available for purchase at the Eisenhower Library. Retail price is $24.99.

Francois' program is part of the current exhibit at the Eisenhower Museum, "World War II Remembered: Leaders, Battles & Heroes," a three-year commemoration of World War II marking the 70th anniversaries of the war and its aftermath told through personal stories.

Karl Weissenbach, executive director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, said he was looking for a speaker from Europe to speak about D-Day and contacted Francois.

"Having his family go through what it did makes him a better speaker," Weissenbach said. "It's something that needs to be told -- not just focusing on the major players but smaller players involved. It's also an opportunity and privilege to thank our veterans for their contributions, not only in World War II, but other wars as well."

Events in Normandy

Weissenbach said plans are in the works for a major 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day at the Eisenhower Library. The biggest commemoration event will be in Normandy, where Francois said 10,000 people have been invited to attend the celebration.

"President Obama plans to be there, as well as Queen Elizabeth and the Queen of Holland," Francois said. "And then there will be smaller celebrations everywhere in Normandy."

During his program, Francois said he wants to give Americans a sense of what it was like to spend four years under German occupation, be part of the French underground that fought against it and what it meant to France to have their country liberated.

"The liberation of our country after four years of occupation is so important to the French," he said. "There's such a special connection between Normandy and the U.S."

-- Reporter Gary Demuth can be reached at 822-1405 or by email at gdemuth@salina.com.

Dominique Francois, who still lives in Normandy, will present a program entitled "Normandy: Before and After D-Day," at 1 p.m. Friday in the auditorium at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene. His visit is made possible through the William T. Kemper Foundation.

Francois also will speak in Salina at 7 p.m. Friday in Sams Chapel on the Kansas Wesleyan University campus.

D-Day statistics

Allied soldiers who landed on D-Day: 156,115

American paratroopers dropped on D-Day: 15,500

British paratroopers dropped on D-Day: 7,900

Allied vehicles that landed on D-Day: 200,000

Allied aircrafts on D-Day: 11,590

Allied casualties (killed, wounded, missing or captured): 10,500

German estimated losses on D-Day: 10,000

American casualties on D-Day: 6,000

American casualties on Omaha Beach: 2,500

American casualties on Utah Beach: 197

Civilians killed during the Battle of Normandy: 20,000

-- Statistics courtesy of Dominique Francois

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