When Paris fell to the Germans near the beginning of World War II, French Col. Charles de Gaulle ( search) made a fiery call to his countrymen to rise up and resist.
One person who heard de Gaulle was Helene Deschamps.
“He gave such an enthusiastic speech from England — that's ... when I said, ‘I have to do something,’" said Deschamps, who at the time was a young woman from the resort area of Provence in southern France.
“At the time I was 18. ... Mother never knew ... and it was difficult,” she said, describing her secret involvement in the Resistance.
The self-proclaimed leader of the “Free French,” de Gaulle was commanding the 4th Armored Division as it tried to hold back German forces when he was tapped to become France’s minister of war on June 5, 1940.
He traveled to London to meet with the British allies but when he returned to France on June 16, he discovered that the Nazi collaborator Henri-Philippe Petain ( search) had ousted Paul Reynaud as prime minister.
De Gaulle returned to England, where he made the radio broadcast that spurred Deschamps and others to take action.
Deschamps recalled seeing Prime Minister Petain in Vichy, the city that became the head of the French government after the Germans occupied three-fifths of the country. She had gotten a job as a secretary in the Vichy government.
“Petain was there and he would take his little promenade after lunch,” Deschamps said. “He walked in the park there. ... Every time he passed, he tipped his hat and said, 'mademoiselle.’”
Little did Petain know that Deschamps was a Resistance agent on a covert mission to penetrate the Milice, the French version of the Gestapo.
In her office was a metal filing cabinet containing hundreds of French citizens’ names.
“They were the names of all the Jewish people and the names of people who were not pro-German,” she said. “Then he would call the lieutenant, slap his back and say, ‘Now, what letter of the alphabet do you want me to take?’
“So the other one said, ‘Well, not a D today, maybe a J?’ And then he would open those drawers, grab here, grab there ... and those were killed.”
So Deschamps began destroying files.
”I would grab and put in my brassiere four or five names from this drawer, four or five names from another ... and go to the bathroom,” she said. “I would tear the papers and flush them. Ten, 20 people were saved everyday.”
With France mostly under the Nazis’ control, “We were treated like animals,” Deschamps said.
Fighting in Normandy
The German occupation of France, and along with it the collaboration of Petain, ended about four years later.
Shortly after midnight on June 6, 1944, 17,000 Allied paratroopers jumped into France behind enemy lines. Six hours later some 150,000 troops from England joined them on the beaches of Normandy. D-Day (search) was underway.
In less than three weeks, 1 million Allied troops were firmly entrenched on French soil.
During the Americans’ first victories in the Battle for Normandy ( search), the cost of lives was horrific: more than 142,000 on both sides. Overall triumph still hung in the balance. By early July, Allied and German soldiers stood face to face along a 130-mile front.
The first step was to take St. Lo. Strategically located 20 miles east of the landing beaches, it was the crossroads to everywhere.
“It took eight days of horrible bloody fighting with three divisions fighting there,” said John McManus, a military history professor and author of four books on World War II.
St. Lo was finally liberated on July 18, paving the way for a string of offensives that led to the liberation of France.
By the late summer of 1944, France was finally free. But liberty had been purchased for a terrible price: nearly a quarter of a million Allied dead, missing and wounded and tens of thousands of French civilians and Resistance fighters also perished.
Despite political differences between Washington and Paris there's no doubt that the French people still remember.
Sixty years after the battles, a French diplomat honored the triumph and sacrifice of all American soldiers.
"You gave your blood to France and to the French people," said Denis Pietton, deputy chief of mission, at a ceremony commemorating the 60th Anniversary of D-Day at the French Embassy.
"Many did not return. They'll stay forever in Normandy. They'll stay forever in our hearts. ... God bless America."