PARIS (AP) – Leon Gautier, the last surviving member of an elite French unit that joined U.S. and other Allied forces in the D-Day invasion to wrest Normandy from Nazi control, has died. He was 100. The death was announced July 3 by Romain Bail, the mayor of Ouistreham, an English Channel coastal community where Allies landed on June 6, 1944, and where Gautier lived out his final decades. He had been hospitalized for the past week with lung trouble, Bail said.
Gautier was a nationally known figure, and met with President Emmanuel Macron as part of commemorations for the 79th anniversary of D-Day last month. He was also an important voice for the memory of World War II, and of warning.
“The younger generations have to be told, they need to know,” Gautier told the Associated Press in 2019. “War is ugly. War is misery, misery everywhere.”
He devoted much of his life after the war making sure that lessons from the war aren’t forgotten by giving interviews, taking part in commemorations and helping put together the museum in Ouistreham that commemorates the French commandos who helped liberate Normandy.
“He was a father to us, a grandfather to us, an important figure of daily life,” the mayor said. “He was the hero of 1944, the hero of June 6, but also the little old guy that everyone knew.”
Gautier was born on Oct. 27, 1922, in the Brittany village Fougeres, and grew up amid bitter memories of World War I.
At 17, he joined the navy in 1940. When France fell in June that year to the Nazi blitzkrieg, he shipped off to England, where French Gen. Charles de Gaulle was rallying his countrymen.
On D-Day, Gautier and his comrades in the Kieffer Commando unit were among the first waves of Allied troops to storm the heavily defended beaches of Nazi-occupied northern France, beginning the liberation of western Europe.
In the huge invasion force made up largely of American, British and Canadian soldiers, French Capt. Philippe Kieffer’s commandos ensured that France had feats to be proud of too, after the dishonor of its Nazi occupation, when some chose to collaborate with Adolf Hitler’s forces.
“For us it was special. We were happy to come home. We were at the head of the landing. The British let us go a few meters in front, ‘Your move, the French,’ ‘After you,'” Gautier recalled. “For us it was the liberation of France, the return into the family.”
They came ashore carrying four days’ worth of rations and ammunition, 30 kilograms (nearly 70 pounds) in all. They sprinted up the beach with their heavy sacks.
The commandos spent 78 days straight on the front lines, in ever-dwindling numbers. Of the 177 who waded ashore on the morning of June 6, just two dozen escaped death or injury, Gautier among them.
Their initial objective was a heavily fortified bunker. Although the strongpoint was just a few kilometers (miles) away, it took them four hours of fighting to get there and take it. On the beach, they cut through barbed wire under a hail of bullets.
“We were being shot at, but we shot at them too,” Gautier remembers. “When we arrived near the walls of the bunkers, we threw grenades in through the slits.”
He later injured his left ankle jumping off a train and was forced to sit out much of the rest of the war. His ankle remained painfully swollen for the rest of his long life.
Gautier met his wife, Dorothy, when he was stationed in England and they were married for more than 70 years.
After the war, Gautier worked building car bodies and then training mechanics, living in England, Nigeria and Cameroon before returning to France.
Gautier said he didn’t like talking about the war: “The older you get, you think that maybe you killed a father, made a widow of a woman. … It’s not easy to live with.”
But his testimonies to schools were a crucial part of Normandy’s efforts to remember the war. He also built a close friendship with a former German soldier who settled in Normandy, Johannes Borner, and the two often spoke together about the horrors they saw.
In a statement, Macron said Gautier “united the virtues of a warrior and those of a peacemaker … a will for pardon, and union.”
In addition to a national tribute expected to be led by the president, Ouistreham plans a “people’s gathering” to remember Gautier, Bail said.
“The commemorations won’t have the same flavor in his absence,” the mayor said. “We won’t have the possibility to transmit the same way. Someone who lived it directly transmits differently than someone who didn’t.”
Gautier is survived by many descendants – including a great-great-grandson, born on June 6, 2017 – exactly 73 years after D-Day.
John Leicester and Angela Charlton contributed to this report.
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