Americans bombed his town. 80 years later, he’s commemorating D-Day by flying an American flag.

SAINT-LÔ, France — He was 6 when Allied warplanes turned his town to rubble.

Yves Fauvel says the flashbacks still come regularly: The D-Day evening sky thrumming with American bombers; the screams of families trapped in the debris of their own homes; the man outside a church with both his legs torn off, howling in agony.

And yet, far from feeling animosity for the country that led the destruction of his town, today Fauvel is flying an American flag from his car.

“Do I blame the Americans? No, because without them I’d be dead,” the 86-year-old told NBC News on Tuesday, outside the bunker where his family spent two days sheltering from the aerial barrage.

For almost eight decades, he said, it was too painful to talk about his experiences. But this year, he has decided to share his story for the first time, spending the afternoon with NBC News in what was his first interview with English-language media.

“They had to do it, it was the only solution,” he said of the relentless bombardment. “Some of us were sacrificed, but American soldiers sacrificed themselves and we haven’t forgotten that.”

This is the juxtaposition at the heart of France’s collective D-Day memory, a central theme of this year’s commemorations.

Like in countless places across Normandy, American forces did eventually liberate Fauvel’s hometown of Saint-Lô — but first they obliterated it.

In total, around 20,000 French civilians died in the monthslong Battle of Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord, most of them killed by the planes, artillery and small-arms fire of the invading Allies.

U.S. infantry pass German tanks as they advance through Saint-Lô in Normandy in July 1944. Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

It’s a lesser-told part of the Allied invasion, more often synonymous with stories of American, British and Canadian soldiers sacrificing their lives on beaches and in hedgerows. But as those stories fall out of living memory and into the realm of legend, France is moving to add the stories of their survivors, often layered with trauma and loss, to the collective history.

This year, French President Emmanuel Macron says now is the appropriate time to “balance” the memory of liberation by allowing people to express their memories of grief. He is scheduled to make a speech in Saint-Lô itself Wednesday, paying tribute to the civilians killed.

On the morning of June 6, 1944, news spread through the town of Saint-Lô that Allied forces had landed on nearby Normandy beaches. Many assumed this meant they were about to be liberated. In fact, that evening would only bring an Allied bombardment so intense it would earn their town the sobriquet “Capital of the Ruins.”

Though few doubt the cause, not everyone agrees with all the destruction caused by the Allied forces. Most infamously, the British and American bombing of Dresden, a historic, picturesque city in eastern Germany, remains controversial to this day. The U.S. and British militaries maintain it was a legitimate industrial target, whereas some historians argue the obliteration achieved little other than barbarity against civilians.

Few, if any, dispute that the scale and aggression of D-Day were necessary. Without it, the German war machine would not have been toppled, a reality most in Normandy appear to accept.

America went on to play a key role in reconstructing Europe, with the highest proportion of the $13 billion Marshall Plan going to France. Although some argued that Saint-Lô, which had been a Nazi stronghold, should be left in ruins, as a cautionary monument to war. However, it was eventually rebuilt, partially with American help. Today, there are few old buildings left in this town, now reimagined with pebble-dashed apartment blocks, wide roads and accessible parking lots.

Saint-Lô was a strategic crossroads and a key German base. It was also the Fauvel family’s home.

At 86, Yves Fauvel is vital and precise, wearing a dashing scarf whose decoration bears the French tricolor.

While becoming visibly emotional several times during our conversation, he also made regular humorous asides.

He remembers vividly fleeing his home with his parents, grandparents and 2-year-old sister shortly before the building was torn from its foundations by the falling ordnance. They ran past the screams and the now-ruined Notre-Dame Church, and made their way to a bomb shelter hewn into the side of a cliff by the occupying Nazis.

Thierry Catrine, 60, stands behind the bar at Le Pavis, a spot opposite the Notre-Dame Church in Saint Lô. His grandfather’s farm was ruined in the invasion but his remembrance is undimmed: “Every year, we remember the Americans who came to liberate our town.” Alex Smith / NBC News

Some 700 people stayed in that 5,000-square-foot tunnel for two days, while American bombs rained outside and shook the walls, he said.

A surgeon performed operations without anesthetic, patients’ shrieks reverberating down the subterranean half-cylinder. Next to Fauvel, one woman gave birth behind a sheet, he recalled, while another person periodically came round with a bucket for toiletry needs.

“I was a child but I still think about it all the time — I am traumatized,” he said. “When I see the scenes in Gaza and Ukraine I cannot help thinking of the impact on the children — because I was that child.”

Piloting one of those American B-24 bombers dropping its payload on the town was 1st Lt. Edward L.’’Bud’’ Berthold.

NBC News met with Berthold, 104, at a ceremony at Pegasus Bridge near the city of Caen, and he appeared heartened to hear that the townsfolk held his efforts in the highest esteem.

“We were so busy doing our jobs that there wasn’t time to think about these things,” he said when asked about the devastation visited on Saint-Lô.

Not only were the residents below in peril, but so too were Berthold and his fellow airmen — something emphasized repeatedly by locals.

Not that the pilot thinks about that too much either: “We were so busy doing our jobs that there was no time to be nervous.”

In Saint-Lô and in Sainte-Mère-Église, a town to the north which was the first place freed from the Nazi yoke, NBC News spoke with more than a dozen people who had either firsthand or family-told memories of the carnage that came with emancipation. All said they felt ready to start talking about their feelings of loss — but none translated that grief into a grudge.

“One woman in the town was aged 10 and her little sister was killed by the bombings, and she said, ‘I don’t blame the Americans, they liberated us,’” said Jeanine Verove, chairperson of Saint-Lô 44-Roanoke, a group that welcomes veterans and helps locals process their memories. The group is named after the Virginia city with which Saint-Lô is twinned.

“These people really knew what it meant not to have freedom because they were four years under occupation,” she said.

This is a place where, in June, American flags are as common as French ones, and streets bear names such as “Rue Eisenhower” and “Rue 505E Airborne.”

So are the people of Normandy in step with Macron’s desire to promote the memory of loss?

“Non,” was the blunt response of Jean-Max Getmamm, a retired history professor and president of Demain de Gaulle, an association promoting the ideals of the former general and French president.

“I think about this question all the time,” he said. “But in reality we do not blame the Americans.”

In Sainte-Mère-Église, Andrée Auvray was 18 on D-Day.

Newly married and nine months pregnant with her first child, she saw three American paratroopers descend into her courtyard in the early hours of June 6, some of the very first overtures of the invasion. She helped treat their wounds despite her own physical condition, eventually giving birth to her son on the floor of her house less than two weeks later.

The incoming paratroopers were from the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. The latter’s legendary Lt. Richard “Dick” Winters landed just east of the town, as depicted in the 2001 HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.”

On Tuesday, Auvray, 98, met Joseph “Ben” Miller, 99, whose glider lost both its wings and crash-landed in a nearby field on D-Day. Amid the tourists, re-enactments and wartime paraphernalia of a town in full festival mode, it was a deeply moving moment.

Andrée Auvray, 98, met Joseph “Ben” Miller, 99 in Sainte-Mère-Église, France, on Tuesday. Alex Smith / NBC News

“We have a friendship that you cannot put into words, with the Americans,” Auvray told NBC News after kissing the cheek of Miller, who was able to briefly rise from his wheelchair. “The first Americans who came into Sainte-Mère-Église were really wary of the French, because they had heard that they were collaborators, so the outpouring of warmth that did greet them really took them by surprise.”

That hints at another wrinkle of France’s postwar legacy.

While many supported the French resistance and welcomed their Allied liberators after four years of occupation, there were also plenty of Nazi collaborators. France executed around 10,000 of these during and after the war. And the collaborationist French regime, known as Vichy France, enacted legislation to persecute Jews and helped deport them to concentration camps, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

It was a time of suspicion and accusations traded between members of the community. And it’s this ugly atmosphere that goes a long way to explain why many locals so desperately wanted freedom — even if that came at a heavy cost.

Perhaps the story that best encapsulates the tension between liberation and destruction is that of Maj. Thomas Howie, battalion commander in the U.S. 29th Infantry Division.

Howie led the force that finally liberated Saint-Lô six weeks after D-Day, and wrought more destruction in the process — including felling the bell tower of its gothic St. Croix Cathedral whose foundations date to 1202. When Howie was killed by mortar shrapnel during the attack, his soldiers took his body to that cathedral, laying it in the rubble and draping it in an American flag.

Today, a plaque at the site bears the name of the man widely known as “the Major of Saint-Lô.”

CORRECTION (June 5, 2024, 4 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Auvray’s age on D-Day. She was 18, not 17. It also misstated where she gave birth to her son. It was on the floor of her home, not in a ditch.

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