Graignes is little village situated 13 kilometers from the town of Carentan. This village is more famous for its horse races than for its tragic history on June 6th 1944.
During the night of June 5th to 6th 1944, the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division were supposed to be parachuted on Drop Zone T (DZ T) situated near the town of Amfreville.
Their objective was to help 505th PIR of the same Airborne Division, to hold the strategic bridge of La Fière on the Merderet river and to establish a defensive line between the villages of Amfreville and Gourbesville.
View of the marshes
In the same night, the 501st PIR of the 101st Airborne Division were to capture / secure causeway 1 & 2 leading to Utah Beach.
Some of these paratroopers were dropped by mistake several kilometers from their dropping zone, near the village of Graignes which was not identified as an objective for the d-day landings.
Because of the weather conditions the aircrafts of the two Airborne Divisions found themselves under heavy enemy fire.
Many planes broke up their way and some pilots were no longer able to know their exact position. It resulted in many uncertain droppings.
It happened to 10 aircraft of the 53rd Troop Carrier Squadron who carried a part of the 3rd battalion of the 507th PIR.
The pilots mistakingly confused the Taute river with the Merderet river, thus believed they were above Drop Zone T and gave the signal to the paratroopers to jump in the night.
Same human error occurred for the men of the 501st PIR supposed to be drop at the north of Carentan and were finally parachuted above the village of Tribehou south-west of Graignes.
View of the marshes
About 160 paratroopers of the 507th PIR and 20 of the 501st PIR were dropped over the marshes bordering the Taute river close to the village of Graignes. Among them were Major Charles Johnson, Captains Abraham Sophian, Leroy David Brummit, Lieutenant Frank Naughton, Sergeants Edward Barnes and Benton J. Broussard, 2nd class Joseph Stephaniak and John Hinchliff.
The names of these men will stay forever in the history of the village of Graignes.
The village of Graignes is located on a hill in a swamp area southeast of the city of Carentan. Its church, visible from several kilometers away, dominates the swamps.
Carentan was for several days at the center of difficult battles.
Near Graignes there is a small village named Port Saint-Pierre, one of the gateways to enter into the marshes. In this hamlet the Rigault family lived. A little further north of Port Saint Pierre there is a place called the Port des Planques with a bridge between the Vire and Taute canal. This bridge is the only access to reach the village of Montmartin-en-Graignes.
The church of Graignes before the war
The church of graignes now
Some paratroopers landed directly in the water and sank. The paratroopers quickly realized that the place did no correspond to the briefing they had received before D-Day. They knew nothing of their position. The only landmark that they saw with the moonlight was the bell tower and the cross of the church of Graignes and it became an assembly point for them.
On their way many of them stopped in the farms to ask the inhabitants their help to determine their position.
Around 1:00 am a paratrooper accompanied by a neighbour went to the door of the house of the Rigault family at Port Saint-Pierre. With the light of a candle the soldier unfolded a card and asked the family where he was. The village of Graignes was not on his map and he understood that it will be very difficult or impossible for him to fulfil his mission of the day.
At dawn many paratroopers led by Sergeant Benton Broussard, a Canadian French speaking from Louisiana, gathered at the Rigault house before going to the center of Graignes.
The men of the 501st PIR landed on the side of Tribehou situated south-west of Graignes. Among them, Private Frank Juliano and Captain Loyal Bogart wounded by the German anti aircraft artillery while he was still on the plane.
An American Waco glider belonging to the 74th Transport Carrier Squadron had also mistakenly landed in the area of Graignes. His pilots, Flight Officer Irwin J. Morales and Lieutenant Thomas O. Ahmad, managed to get out of the glider after the landing with two soldiers, Norwood Lester and George A. Brown.
During the day of June 6th the paratroopers gathered in the village center of Graignes near the church of the village. They were welcomed by Father Albert Leblastier, priest of Graignes and the mayor Alphonse Voydie.
Major Charles D. Johnson as the higher officer took the command of the paratroopers, established a defensive perimeter and installed his command post in the school. Among this first group of paratroopers were also Captain David Brummit and Captain Abraham Sophian. The soldiers had with them four to five machine guns and two mortars.
In the late afternoon of June 6th a second group of paratroopers including men of the 82nd and 101st with Lieutenant Frank Naughton, joined the center of the village.
The men dug fox holes and prepared fire positions as they had learned during their training.
The steeple of the church was used for all-round observation, the mortar group settled near the cemetery and bells were placed along the approach axes of the village. The paratroopers also had anti-tank mines which they put on the main crossroads.
Two possibilities were offered to the paratroopers: stay and defend the village or try to make it back to their initial objective, some 20 miles away!
Captain Brummit wanted to join the 101st Airborne sector near Carentan before meeting up with the 82nd. He proposed to conduct a night walk through the marshes and to destroy the non transportable weapons.
Major Johnson, meanwhile, wanted to stay there and establish defensive positions while waiting for the Allied forces that landed at Utah Beach and Omaha Beach.
The second option was finally chosen.The mayor was summoned by the Major who asked him a full cooperation, especially in finding the containers, filled with ammunitions and heavy weapons, dropped into the marshes.
During the following days the American paratroopers conducted patrols around Graignes in order to identify and evaluate the German forces present in the region. In these first three days contacts with the enemy increased.
On June 8th, a first clash took place near the bridge located north of the village at Port des Planques. Eleven American soldiers attacked a German horse-drawn convoy and retreated.
On June 9th, Major Johnson ordered Lieutenant Frank Naughton to destroy the bridge to prevent access by the German forces from the north. Explosive charges were placed on the building. The Lieutenant immediately ordered the destruction of the bridge and cut one of the main access road to the village.
During the same day another clash took place on the side of Tribehou village south-west of Graignes. A group of paratroopers from the 501st, including Frank Juliano, were posted on the road D 29. A German side-car arrived and immediately the paratroopers neutralized the two men and realized by searching them that they belonged to a reconnaissance unit of the 17th Panzer Division SS Götz von Berlichingen.
On June 11th the paratroopers were allowed to go to the mass in the church of Graignes. The mass held by Albert Leblastier had been going on for almost an hour when around 10 o'clock the alert was given, the German forces were approaching.
The paratroopers got themselves ready to fight the 17th Panzer Division SS Götz von Berlichingen.
This division was stationed at Thouars, south of the Loire and had received, on the 6th of June, the order to move up to Normandy. Due to the progress of the allies, its main objective was to retake the city of Carentan.
The first attack on Graignes took place around noon. The Americans managed to repel the SS but with heavy losses.
Captain Sophian, a medic, helped by two nurses setup a first aid station in the church where all the wounded were transported. Father Leblastier, Father Louis Lebarbanchon and several residents also took care of the wounded.
Meanwhile the German had gathered in the town of Mesnil-Angot south of Graignes.
Around 2:30 pm in the same area, the German installed an 88mm artillery battery in the village of Thieuville and began to attack the American positions. The church steeple and the command post were particularly targeted. This second German attack lasted until around 9:00 pm.
The paratroopers were gradually overwhelmed by the number of Germans and they retreated around the church in the center of the village. The situation was critical and Major Johnson finally gave the order to leave the position and retreat to the marshes.
The situation was very confusing, some paratroopers never received the withdrawal order and continued to fight until their ammunition were used. Some managed to escape, that was the case of Lieutenant Naughton. Others lost their lives during the retreat as Major Johnson. Some were captured and subsequently executed.
We still don't know today some of the last moments of many of them. Sergeant Benton Broussard body, for example, was never found.
In the morning of June 12th, the last paratroopers left their positions little by little. Most inhabitants also abandoned the village. About 80 Americans gathered at Port Saint-Pierre north of Graignes. Among them was Lieutenant Naughton and Captain Brummit.
That day some of the paratroopers begun the crossing of the marshes in order to join the American positions around Carentan.Others found various safety places and preferred to wait. That was the case of Frank Juliano of the 101st Airborne who was hidden in the attic of a house until July 13th!
Another paratrooper was hidden in the steeple of the church before being evacuated overnight by the village teacher.
A group of 21 paratroopers decided to take refuge in the barn of the Rigault family's farm at Port Saint-Pierre so as to find a solution to cross the marshes. They stayed hidden and avoided a German patrol. Finally on June 14th they crossed the marshes aboard flat-bottomed boats, the barges. The Rigault family organized their escape. They navigated on the Taute river located close to the farm and joined the village of Saint-Hilaire-PetitVille.
View of the Taute and Vire rivers
Graignes Bridge now named “507th Bridge”
View from the Graignes bridge
But the tragedy known today as "Bloody Sunday" happened on June 11th. Captain Sophian and his two nurses decided to stay with the seventeen wounded in Graignes church, despite the order to withdraw.
Father Leblastier, Father Louis Lebarbanchon and several inhabitants also made this choice.
A white flag was placed in front of the door as a sign of surrender.
The SS entered the village in the night of June 11th and were animated by a spirit of revenge. The fate of the paratroopers who stayed was never been established with certainty. Three seriously wounded and untransportable paratroopers were reportedly killed in the church.The other Americans were divided into two groups. Five of them were led behind the cafe and were executed with bayonets and thrown into a nearby pond.
Nine others were taken to a field close to the town of Mesnil-Angot and were shot in the head after digging their own grave in the morning of June 12th.
Captain Sophian was captured with Captain Loyal Bogart of the 101st Airborne. The two men were interrogated and finally executed a few days later in the village of Tribehou.
Father Leblastier and Father Louis Lebarbanchon were also executed in front of their house during the night of June 11th to the 12th. They gave their lives by helping out Allied soldiers.
On the 12th of June the inhabitants of Graignes picked up the bodies of the paratroopers thrown into the pond and the two priest in order to prepare for their burial. Finally under the threat of the Germans, they were forced to stop.
The two priest were finally placed in coffins on the 25th June, but once again a German patrol disrupted the ceremony.
Two days later the German forces set fire to the presbytery with the bodies of the two men inside.
June 13th various buildings of the village were also the subject of a systematic destruction by the SS. In the end, almost the entire village was destroyed.
After the war the village was rebuilt a little further south called now the new village.
On June 30th, the last inhabitants of Graignes were forced by the Germans to leave the village. The village was finally liberated on July 12th, 1944 by the Americans soldiers of the 113th cavalry regiment.
The inhabitants returned from their exile only on July 20th.
Memorial inaugurated on June 12th 1949 by the US Ambassador
Name of the civilians and paratroopers victims of the Nazis
The grave of Father Leblastier