Some people make an impression on you.
I made the acquaintance of Magali Renault over a decade ago. Every Memorial Day she had the habit of placing an ad in the newspaper to honor American servicemen who sacrificed their lives on the second D-Day of World War II, the day her hometown was liberated.
Sadly, Magali died two weeks ago after contracting COVID-19, and the day we received her obituary I couldn’t help but think of my first meeting with her. When I sat down at the dining room table with her at her home on South Drive, she shared old photographs and all-to-vivid memories of spending a good chunk of her growing up under Nazi domination.
It was seeing scores of dead paratroopers in the town square wrapped in their parachutes that compelled her to place a tribute to those troops in the newspaper each year, and when I saw that she had died I had to dig out the scribbled notes I saved from our conversation.
“No one has ever asked me about my experiences during the Nazi occupation before,” she told me.
Magali Larose grew up with her parents, Paul and Elise Larose, in the French village of Draguignan, which eventually became the scene of an Allied invasion to push the German army out of the Provence area in southern France. She was 12 years old when over 90,000 Allied troops began driving out the Germans on August 15, 1944, ending a two-year occupation of her hometown.
Magali was eight when she was first made aware of the coming war in late 1939.
“In the town, the police force was made up of local police, the gendarmerie, and the Federal Police,” she said. “I remember one day the federal cops – they wore big black raincoats – came into our living room and talked to my father, who was a veteran of World War I. They told him he would be put on a list to be drafted. This was the first I remember knowing about the war. My father was 45 at the time.”
Ultimately her father was not drafted, but the approach of war consumed the town’s populace.
“We all thought the Germans were going to come and bomb us from dirigibles. Or use poison gas,” she said. “It was mandatory after that to paint your windows dark blue or black, and use masking tape, too, so no light would show through.”
A few months later, after the fall of Paris in June 1940, things began to change in Draguignan.
“There were a lot of people coming into the town. They called it ‘the exodus,’” Magali said. “They were coming from the north to avoid being arrested by the Germans. Not just the Jews but others, too. We opened two rooms in our house to refugees. One said he walked 800 miles to get to Draguignan. And another who worked a print shop in Paris.”
Other than inconveniences such as the rationing of flour and gasoline, “we were basically fine until 1942,” Magali said. “But day to day living was much worse when the Germans took over the town.”
After that she and her family began to notice changes, beginning with some of the popular stores in town being closed.
“Some of the Jewish people had businesses in town,” she said. “I would walk by and see them boarded up, and I knew the Jews had been taken away. There would be a Star of David painted on the front.”
For the next two years, the German presence was felt on all levels.
“They took over the nicest hotel in town for their military headquarters, and my school was taken over in 1942 for a hospital,” Magali said. “We had to go to school at another building that was available and had to go in half-day shifts.
“I remember the German patrols walking the avenue. The German soldiers walked in pairs, in the middle of the street. And they would be singing loudly,” she said. “Do you know why? Out of fear. They walked in the middle of the street so they could have clear vision around them. To the left and to the right.
“When I saw them coming I walked very close to the wall and wouldn’t look at them,” Magali said. “But generally, the German soldiers ignored us. And we ignored them as much as possible.”
As time went on during the occupation, food became harder to come by.
“We were hungry all during that war. The queues at the market were longer and longer and produce kept getting scarcer and scarcer. The vegetables were running out. It was down to potatoes and eggplant,” she said. “Eggplant is OK, but when you have it every single day you don’t want to eat ever again.
“No flour. No yeast. And no bread. You see, to the French bread is the main food,” Magali said. “But we did have honey.
“You could say we were lucky. We had cousins who were farmers. We did a lot of bartering for survival,” she said. “My uncle was a beekeeper and sold honey. It was like gold. People were even putting honey in their coffee. Awful!”
She said her father could not work regularly because he had a garage before the war, “but now there was no gasoline.”
The French Underground was also active in Draguignan from 1942 to 1944.
“We knew some of the underground resistance fighters. My uncle – the beekeeper – worked with the underground,” Magali said. “He would go away – disappear for a day or two – and no one knew where he went. Later, there would be news that a bridge or something had been blown up. He would say ‘I already know about that’.”
She remembers her aunt saying “whenever I heard loud steps coming from boots up the stairs he didn’t know if the Gestapo was coming for him.” Some of her family’s friends were taken to jail, Magali said.
But everything changed again in mid-August, 1944.
“The first hint of Americans coming was that there was a lot of traffic in town, all of a sudden. It was the Germans and the collaborators leaving,” she said. “Then there was so much noise. The Germans had set fires at the ammunition depot. They left in a hurry.
“Later on in the night, we were starting to hear the pounding of the coast. To make an opening for the troops.”
It was August 15, the beginning of Operation Dragoon, which had been planned as a follow-up to the D-Day invasion at Normandy.
“They did it for strategic reasons. The Rhone Valley (north of Draguignan) had to be kept safe, and not allow the Germans to re-group there,” Magali said.
The invasion was an amphibious assault by the U.S. Army’s Seventh Division and the French First Army. A fleet of more than fifty cruisers and destroyers supported the landings. It was preceded by an airborne assault.
“From the hill, we could see gliders dropping equipment, then my father said it looks like there’s a man falling out of the plane,” she said. “It was a paratrooper. And then more and more followed.”
Later she learned that scores of soldiers were shot while parachuting down.
“The noise of the many, many bombs that night was terrible and the ground was shaking under my feet,” she said. “I know they bombed the railroad and other places. They were very accurate.”
Magali said the next day, she and her mother, looking for her father, walked to the town square.
“My mother said, ‘don’t look,’ and tried to turn me away, but had to look to see what she was talking about,” she said. “It was terrible. We found all these dead bodies. Americans. Rolled up in parachutes. Up to 300 bodies there.
“These were the men who came to liberate our town. And they were lying there dead. I remember you could see their boots sticking out from the white parachutes,” she said. “And there was the smell of death. So sad. So sad. We had just seen them jump from the airplanes to liberate us. A tragedy for the country.”
The dead paratroopers included 252 Americans of the 517th Regimental Parachute Combat Team.
Although French law dictated that foreign nationals could not be buried without a permit signed by a Prefect or Mayor, after 48 hours with nothing being done, a local doctor said he would take responsibility and arranged for the burials in a field donated by a farmer. The cemetery still exists.
“The other soldiers came into town and they had camouflaged faces. I had never heard of that before,” Magali said. “There were some French Canadians that came to my house. My father wanted to give them wine. They wanted water.
“Americans brought bags of flour. And chocolate. I hadn’t seen chocolate for two years.”
She said she and her friends would later go hang out where the GI’s were.
“We wanted to practice our English on the Americans working there,” she said.
Magali moved to Socorro in 1964 with her husband, the late Jacques Renault, who was a geologist at the state’s Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Tech, eventually becoming emeritus senior geologist at Tech.
“These are my memories,” she said on that day in 2010. “It’s important to remember that the American soldiers sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom.”