Shortly before the Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-day, 75 years ago, General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote an inspiring message to the troops: “You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, towards which we have striven these many months.... I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory! Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."
Three million men crossed the English Channel in the largest seaborne invasion in history. By nightfall, over 9,000 soldiers lay dead or wounded, but more than 100,000 troops had made it ashore to begin nearly three months of battles to liberate France, which had been under Nazi occupation for four years.
The men who fought in those bloody battles forever changed people’s lives—and transformed the perception of the soldier—as liberator and deliverer—for at least one young French girl.
Gisele Clapier was six years old when the Germans invaded France in 1940. Her single mother and aunt wept as they told her about the Nazi occupation. Unable to care for her daughter, Gisele’s mother sent her to live with various aunts and other family members. As the war intensified, however, she was forced to send Gisele to an orphanage hundreds of miles away in Crest, a rural village in southeastern France.
It was a beautiful Sunday in August 1943 when Gisele heard the war planes approaching. Thirty-one young girls from the orphanage were on a hill near the city as they watched bombs explode, smothering everything and everybody within their reach. The children screamed with horror—some covering their eyes and ears, others staring in disbelief.
After what seemed like hours of destruction, the girls walked back down to the town to witness the smoldering remnants of homes and find thirty-three people dead, including classmates their own age. During the weeks that followed, the hungry waifs slept in surrounding fields, afraid that the sirens would not be enough warning to escape the next round of bombings.
Gisele’s memories of Nazi oppression and American liberation remain vivid. When the German soldiers marched into France, she watched the French citizens along the street weeping in fear of losing their liberty or their lives. She watched again, over four years later, as tears streamed down the cheeks of happy faces, cheering the arrival of American soldiers. “They were nice,” she recalls. “I
couldn’t understand their words, but they smiled and gave me a stick of gum. I had heard about chewing gum, but I never imagined it tasted so good!” Then, in serious reflection, she added, “They delivered us. We were free again!”
Gisele survived the years of Nazi oppression over the peoples of Europe, although some of her friends did not. After returning to her mother, she later attended college in Nice, France, where she met two sister missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After joining the Church, she immigrated to the country that had saved her life and restored her freedom. She arrived in New York Harbor on October 3, 1955. She fell in love with Rayo Budge, a young American who had served as a missionary in France, and they eventually settled in Rexburg, Idaho, where they live today.
In 1943, a young girl hid in the basement of an orphanage, hungry and scared, with the sounds of bombs and guns all around her. Today, no one is more grateful than Gisele, not only to the soldiers who liberated France from the Nazis, but to all who have fought to preserve the independence we commemorate this week.
As we celebrate our freedoms this 4th of July, may we also celebrate the role this country has played throughout its history in liberating the oppressed and securing liberty and justice for people around the world. General Eisenhower’s words to the allied troops still ring true today: “The eyes of the world are upon us. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with us.”