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SALT LAKE CITY – D-Day was only the beginning of Europe’s liberation from the Nazis.

As the world commemorates the 80th anniversary of the invasion, a Utah family has just returned from the town where their loved one died fighting to liberate France. They were guests of honor as a small French village remembered U.S. Air Force pilot Paul Chaufty, whose plane crashed the day their town was liberated from Nazi Germany.

Nicole Saunders and her husband David never met their great-uncle Chaufty. They knew he fought in World War II and died near Normandy. But members of the French family who witnessed the crash of his plane nearly 80 years ago set up a foundation to honor him.

The Saunders said they would never forget their experiences in France and cherished the historic moments that should never be forgotten.

“It was just touching to see it,” said Nicole Saunders as she and her husband looked through their treasures from their trip to France.

They are not looking for souvenirs, but what could be called family heirlooms. They now own parts of the plane their uncle was flying when it crashed in a small village near Normandy.

Heirlooms from the Saunders family after their trip to Normandy, including a poster advertising in French the ceremony to commemorate their relative, US Army Air Force pilot Paul Chaufty. Chaufty's plane crashed in the French village of Saint Ellier Les Bois.
Heirlooms from the Saunders family after their trip to Normandy, including a poster advertising in French the ceremony to commemorate their relative, U.S. Army Air Force pilot Paul Chaufty. Chaufty’s plane crashed in the French village of Saint Ellier Les Bois. (Photo: Mark Less, KSL-TV)

The couple traveled to France with their two adult sons to attend a ceremony honoring Nicole Sounder’s great-uncle. In August 1944, a 14-year-old girl, Marie Bastien, now 94, watched his plane crash. Her family fought to keep his legacy alive.

In the village of Saint Ellier Les Bois, French dignitaries and local politicians honored Chaufty with a monument that will stand in their town. They also showed the Saunders family the spot where Chaufty’s plane crashed and where his body was later found, a few miles away.

“It was incredible because there were American flags in both places,” Nicole Saunders said. “And it was really touching to be in the middle of rural France and see American flags to honor my Uncle Paul.”

NBC Nightly News accompanied the Saunders as a monument to Chaufty was unveiled in the village, an event initiated by Bastien’s family.

A still from video footage of the U.S. Air Force during World War II en route to the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. A Utah pilot, U.S. Army Air Force Pilot Paul Chaufty, was recently honored by residents of the village of Saint Ellier Les Bois, France, whose plane crashed the day their town was liberated from Nazi Germany.
A still from video footage of the U.S. Air Force during World War II en route to the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. A pilot from Utah, U.S. Army Air Force pilot Paul Chaufty, was recently honored by residents of the village of Saint Ellier Les Bois, France. His plane crashed the day their town was liberated from Nazi Germany. (Photo: NBC)

“It’s not a very big city and yet there were over 200 people there,” said David Saunders.

He said the trip was emotional.

“They all came with their own special flag to show the solidarity of the entire region,” he said.

The Saunders also met school children who had painted pictures with a real understanding of the story.

“They didn’t forget it and they passed it on,” said David Saunders.

The Saunders left the village with a stronger connection to the past and new friendships that will last a lifetime.

“He wasn’t a loner,” they said. “He was part of something big and it was amazing how deeply they remembered that and how deeply they were touched by it.”

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