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French priest still thankful for D-Day

The French don’t forget.

Even 70 years after that heroic day June 6, 1944, when American troops liberated France from invading Nazis, the French at home and abroad remember the freedom it afforded them.

It’s a time in history Father Franck “Nathanael” Pujos of St. Catherine of Siena Church will always remember.

As a young boy, Father Nathanael Pujos recalled an emotional visit with his grandmother to an American cemetery in Normandy after World War II. He saw the fallen soldiers as heroes and imitated their fight against the Nazis using an American flag draped over his shoulders.“As a Frenchman and as a priest, I’m really aware of what we owe this young generation of soldiers who died for us French to be free,” said Father Pujos, 44, who is a parochial vicar and chaplain at St. Catherine School.

Without his freedom, he may not have become a priest, he said.

“I’m a priest today … because I was raised in a free country, not occupied by the Nazis, nor by the Russian communists after World War II like half of Europe,” Father Pujos said.

As a young boy growing up in Paris, his family instilled in him a deep respect and appreciation for the sacrifice of thousands of soldiers who died that day.

During the Normandy invasion, called D-Day, some 156,000 allied troops launched the largest seaborne invasion in history against the German-occupied northern France and into Western Europe.

Causalities reached an estimated 12,000 that day along the 50-mile stretch of the Normandy beach. The victory contributed to the allied forces’ eventual victory over Nazi Germany.

His grandparents and parents, Jerome and Sylvie Pujos, always spoke to him about it. When he was young, his grandmother took him to the American cemetery in Normandy to pay their respect for the soldiers.

“I have a deep memory of the cemetery with all these thousands of tombs,” he said. “Each time I think about this cemetery, I get emotional because it’s striking.”

He recalls seeing row after row of white crosses marking the graves of young Americans.

“The field of crosses were perfectly taken care of and maintained,” he said. “As you got closer to the tombs, you would see the age of the soldiers. They were kids—18 or 21 years old.

“I will never forget about it,” Father Pujos said.

It made an impression on the young man when his parents would utter the word “American” with admiration and love.

“Americans are heroes in my family,” he said.

When playing as a boy, he would imitate the American soldiers. Thinking of their heroic battle, he would pretend to be a soldier and drape an American flag over his shoulders.

He grew up and joined the Catholic Community of the Beatitudes to become a missionary priest.

Father Pujos was later sent to the United States and has ministered here for eight years.

Every year around Memorial Day and close to D-Day, he preaches in his homilies about the need to remember the young soldiers who died for freedom, honor and Christian values.

“It was very emotional for me to preach on Memorial Day in an American parish,” he said, adding that he’ll sometimes reach up and touch the American flag hanging near the altar.

He wants to remind Americans that while it may seem that the world hates them, many Frenchmen won’t forget the day they won them freedom.

“I would like people to know in my family and for a lot of French, the Americans meant the world. It means everything,” Father Pujos said. “I think Americans need to hear it again and again.”

Operation Overlord: June 6, 1944

Begins the march to defeat Hitler
160,000 Allied troops
5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft
Largest seaborne invasion in history
50-mile stretch along the Normandy coast
Some 9,000 Allied casualties and deaths
Allies liberate Paris Aug. 25, 1944
Nazi Germany surrenders May 8, 1945

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