Heart of Louisiana: Cajun paratrooper

Heart of Louisiana: Cajun paratrooper

CROWLEY, La. (WVUE) - One of the tragic stories of D-Day involved a Cajun paratrooper from South Louisiana. The paratroopers landed far from their drop zone, and ended up in a bloody battle with the Germans. FOX 8′s Dave McNamara traveled to that French village to find a story of a battle that ended in a massacre and a lost love that has a deep connection to the Heart of Louisiana.

One tower is all that remains of a 12th Century church that stood on a Normandy hilltop in the tiny village of Graignes. It’s a war memorial for nearly 50 American soldiers and 32 of the town’s citizens. One of those killed here was Sgt. Benton Broussard, a French-speaking Cajun paratrooper. It was just after midnight on D-Day when more than 100 American paratroopers dropped into the flooded lowlands around the village.

"Around one o'clock in the morning, somebody knocked at their door and it was the first American who arrived," said Danielle Peros.

Peros translates for her mother, Marthe Rigault, who was 12 years old on D-Day. Marthe's sister, Odette, was 18. It was Sgt. Benton Broussard who had knocked on their door.

"He was the only one who spoke French so it was wonderful to hear someone speak French," Peros said.

The paratroopers missed their target by 15 miles. It was the worst mis-drop of D-Day.

The Rigault family farm became a gathering place for soldiers who waded out of the swamp that night. The girls and their father used a boat to gather the troopers’ parachutes, equipment packs and ammunition.

"They want to find all of the equipment in the swamp to hide them in the barn," Peros said.

It was a huge risk. If the Germans caught them, they would be shot. Marthe still has part of a parachute she saved from D-Day. Five days would pass before German troops arrived.

The townspeople had gathered here in the Catholic church for Sunday Mass, and they were joined by some of the American paratroopers. That's when they got word that the Germans were beginning their attack.

"A lady came in there and screamed that the Germans were coming," Peros said.

The battle raged all day. Odette recalls peeking through a keyhole in the church door.

"She was looking inside and she could see an American soldier fighting, and she saw him falling dead and this just shocked her a lot," Peros said.

Sgt. Broussard was just steps away from the church when he was killed by an artillery shell. During a lull in the fighting, the villagers were sent to their homes. The paratroopers were running out of ammunition and withdrew from the village. The Germans moved in and massacred 17 wounded and captured American soldiers who stayed behind. Some of the villagers were also executed.

"And then they killed the two priests, the French priests who stayed with them, and they burned them," Peros said.

The village of Graignes was destroyed. Two months later, Sgt. Broussard's mother, who lived near Crowley, Louisiana, got this telegram.

"I don't know if she ever got over it," said Deanna Richard Spell.

Deanna Richard Spell is Broussard's niece. She remembers that his mother constantly spoke of her lost son.

"She dedicated her life to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and she wore blue and white for the rest of her life," Spell said.

Broussard's remains were returned to Crowley, where he is buried next to his parents. Seventy years after D-Day, Odette recorded this message to Broussard's family.

“She would like to meet his family to tell them that he was happy with him the last eight days of his life,” Peros said.

Rose Marie Benoit, another niece, grew up hearing stories from her grandmother about the uncle she never knew.

"He loved chocolates," she recalled. "She would send in chocolates."

Her grandmother never knew what happened to her son, and no one here knew that Sgt. Broussard and 18-year-old Odette were falling in love.

"He was like a first love for her," Peros said.

After the war, Odette married a Frenchman. Her wedding dress was stitched from the white silk of an American parachute that landed near her home on D-Day.

Historian and author Martin Morgan of Covington provided many of the photographs and historical background for this story.

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