FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - The 101st Airborne Division, as we know it today, stems from World War II. Nearly eight decades ago, Nazi-German forces occupied Carentan, a small city in northern France. The 101st had one mission on June 6, 1944 -- to liberate Carentan.After several days of brutal fighting, the 101st Abn. Div. defeated German forces and drove them out of the city. Many U.S. Soldiers were either killed in action or wounded during the battle. The newly liberated citizens of Carentan developed a swell of thankfulness so deep, it formed a bond between two cities a world apart.More than 20 seniors from Lycee Sivard de Beaulieu High School, Carentan, France visited Fort Campbell, Kentucky, March 12, to see how the U.S. Soldiers of today train, eat and live.Their teacher explained that although the World War II generation is fading away, a new generation of French people remains full of gratitude for the Soldiers who gave their lives to protect people living halfway around the world.
Patrick Fissot, one of the school's history teachers, organized the "Memory and Gratitude Tour" for his students to visit the U.S. Army division that made such a lasting impact on their small town.
"We wanted to say thank you to the 101st Division," said Fissot. "Your Soldiers accepted their mission to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1944 to fight Nazis. I believe that is why we are free today."Fissot and his class visited several locations around Fort Campbell. While visiting fellow students Fort Campbell high school, they spoke via Skype to former 1st Lt. Norwood Thomas, a 95-year-old 101st Abn. Div. veteran who helped liberate Carentan.Thomas shared stories with the listening students. His most vivid memories were of the people in Carentan."I gave a little girl a bar of Camay toilette soap, it made her very happy," said Thomas. "She hadn't seen soap in four months."Young minds reflected in silence to grasp the level of lack a war-torn city could suffer. Thomas took advantage of the quiet to share more about the loving nature of people."We had been eating K-Rations for weeks," he said. "It was powdered everything, eggs, milk; you name it. Carentan people gave us fresh milk and food. It was the best I've ever had." The students laughed.After listening to the now great-grandfather Veteran, the students got to see how Soldiers train today in the 101st Abn. Div. They visited The Sabalauski Air Assault School, where thousands of Soldiers per year earn their Air Assault badge. Nearly all of the students rappelled from the tower after a brief demonstration by the school's staff.
"Rappelling off the tower gave us a chance to see what a Soldier experiences during training," said Peter Martin, one of the students. "It was scary, but I was proud of myself for doing it."The students' excitement after visiting the air assault school was contagious. Salima Perrotte, described the 101st Abn. Div. as a [personified] celebrity in their city.
"In Carentan, we are surrounded by the 101. We have streets and restaurants named after the division," she said.After spending a day at Fort Campbell, the students reflected on what they experienced. Many said the landscape looks the same as on television and were a little surprised by it. Others talked about eating American hamburgers and curly fries at the 101st Sustainment Brigade dining facility, while chatting with Soldiers.Fissot has one wish for the legacy of his Memory and Gratitude Tour.
"I hope that many years from now the students will talk to their children about the 101st Div. and their visit today," he said. "It is important that future generations understand and remember what those great Soldiers did for us a long time ago."The next day, the students traveled to a local school in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. In a ceremony there, Carentan Mayor Jean-Pierre Lhonneur exchanged "Keys to the City" with Hopkinsville Mayor Carter Hendricks. The two cities, united across thousands of miles through their connection to the 101st Abn. Div., signed a designation officially making them "Sister Cities.""I come this morning to say welcome to our friends from France," said Hendricks. "Our partnership is forever connected because of the sacrifice from the men and women of the 101st Abn. Div."Lhonneur and his team of delegates were also part of the Memory and Gratitude Tour, visiting Fort Campbell to plan for the summer 2019 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and liberation of Carentan.Brig. Gen. Todd Royar, 101st Abn. Div. deputy commanding general-support, described how Carentan and Hopkinsville forged their unique connection through a common bond."We [the 101st Abn. Div.] were baptized by fire in Carentan, and we live and train here in Hopkinsville," said Royar. "Both cities have been absolutely supportive of the division, our Soldiers and our families. We thank them both for what they have done in the past and today."