Born in the war’s aftermath, Jean-Marc Lefranc, president of France’s D-Day Commemoration Committee, has a lifelong connection to D-Day and World War II. The son of a French resistance fighter, Lefranc, 72, grew up in the town of Grandcamp-Maisy, a mere three miles from Pointe du Hoc. Early on D-Day, men of the U.S. Army’s 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions scaled the 100-foot cliff there to seize the German defensive position at the top. Says Lefranc: “My father instilled in me the sacrifice the Allied soldiers made.”
How will the 75th Anniversary compare to previous commemorations?
In one particularly important way: most of the survivors of World War II are in their nineties. This will likely be the last time a large group of veterans will visit Normandy. Three hundred British veterans who landed on Gold Beach are attending. There will also be American, Canadian, Belgian, Polish, Norwegian, and Danish veterans. Private Charles Norman Shay, a 94-year-old veteran and member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, will be in attendance. On D-Day, he served as a medic on Omaha Beach.
Tell us about your family’s wartime experiences.
In 1944 my dad was 23 years old. He was sent to work in Germany but managed to escape. He made it to Paris and enlisted in the FFI—the French Forces of the Interior, the French Resistance fighters.
The first Allied air bombing near our home began on May 26. The worst was the night of June 5-6. There was bombing, gunfire from American warships, and many boats. From our home, my family could see smoke in the distance. Everyone in all the coastal towns was afraid. They hid in trenches and in basements. Nobody was out in the streets. They didn’t know what had happened, but very quickly understood that it was the invasion.
When did you first visit Pointe du Hoc?
I had gone with my parents when I was very young. It was dangerous—not just because of unexploded ammunition, but because of the cliff’s height. At that time there was no barbed wire, no protection to avoid falls and rockslides. But my strongest memory is from age 10: my friends and I went there to fish for shrimp and octopus. The base of the cliff was filled with bullets and grenades. One friend died from an explosion.
You’ve become closely involved with the Rangers. How did that come about?
I was a committee member at the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984; at the time there were lots of surviving Rangers. Leonard “Bud” Lomell of the 2nd Rangers was the first Ranger off the landing craft to be shot; he told me about the mission at Pointe du Hoc. There were other brave men such as Lieutenant Sidney Salomon, 2nd Rangers—the inspiration for Tom Hanks’s character in Saving Private Ryan. He had 37 men in his landing craft. “After we crossed the beach and climbed the cliff, I only had nine men left,” he told me. “Nine out of the 37.”
The 45th anniversary was held in Grandcamp-Maisy; I was the mayor then. We had 350 active-duty Rangers and about 80 veterans and family members. I asked a fisherman to loan me a boat. He brought the Rangers aboard and we sailed toward Pointe du Hoc. When it came into sight they cried. Since then I’ve had a long friendship with the Rangers.
Do they keep in touch?
Yes; many Rangers and their families have vacationed at my home. One day I got a letter from Louis Lisko, a radio operator for the 2nd Rangers Headquarters. He was the Ranger historian. In his letter he wrote that he had cancer and that when he died he wanted his remains to be sent to me. I spread his ashes on Pointe du Hoc on June 6, 1999. It was very emotional. His wish was to rest forever with his comrades in arms.
You were instrumental in building a Ranger museum.
In 1989, I attended the Ranger reunion in Washington, DC, and gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery in which I promised to build a Ranger museum in Normandy. We chose a location facing the sea so the beaches of June 6 could be visible. Musée des Rangers opened in Grandcamp-Maisy in October 1990. Rangers donated their souvenirs: daggers, Lugers, a Colt .45, swastika flags, a portrait of Hitler, and other artifacts. The museum closed in 2015 under a new town council; they didn’t have enough visitors and lost money. Bad management was to blame; I did not agree with its closure.
Any plans to reopen it?
No. It’s very sad. The new mayor is not interested in the Rangers. I have two possibilities: make a deal with the chairman of the Pointe Du Hoc Committee for a new museum or send all the Ranger artifacts to the Lewis Army Museum at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; it’s the home of 2nd Rangers, a good place for the artifacts. Or maybe I’ll run for mayor in 2020.
Not long ago, the cliffs around Pointe du Hoc were in danger of collapsing.
The cliffs and memorial site had to close in 2001 due to safety concerns from decades of erosion. At that time, I was on the Ranger Council and president of the environmental commission in charge of the restoration. I worked with numerous French agencies and obtained the funds to restore the site. In addition, the American Battle Monuments Commission spent $6 million to stabilize the cliff and the observation post.
How long did it take to stabilize the site?
Ten years, beginning in 2001. The observation post and bunkers used by the Nazis were very dangerous. We had to pour concrete at the base near the cliff because of the erosion. The Rangers were getting old and were upset they couldn’t visit. We reopened to the public in March 2011 for the 67th anniversary. A new project will begin next year to build bridges so people don’t walk on Pointe du Hoc. It’s a special place.
What keeps you involved?
There is a spirit in Normandy that is not the same as anywhere else in France. Because we are very close to veterans and their history, I stay in touch with the minister of education. Each year they bring 10- to 18-year-old French schoolchildren to Normandy. We speak to the teachers and prepare ceremonies so they can learn what happened. They meet witnesses and people who were there. By attending the ceremonies the children can understand more clearly what happened. With the knowledge and importance that they learn, they can pass on the stories to younger generations.
Last year, you became the only Frenchman inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame. What does that mean to you?
It was too much. It was a great honor to be alongside American soldiers. Two of the men inducted had been killed in action in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Seven other living Rangers received the medal. And me—I did only my job and no more. I’m just a French citizen. ✯