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Utah pilot who died near Normandy in World War II, commemorated in France

SALT LAKE CITY – D-Day was just 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 in the battle to liberate France. They were the 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 her great-uncle Chaufty. They knew he had fought in World War II and died near Normandy. But members of the French family who saw his plane crash nearly 80 years ago set up a foundation to honor him.

The Saunders said they will never forget their experiences in France and will cherish the moments in history that should never be forgotten.

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

They are not looking at souvenirs, but at what you might call family heirlooms. They now have parts of their uncle’s plane that he 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 commemorating their relative, U.S. Army Air Force pilot Paul Chaufty.  Chaufty's plane crashed in the village of Saint Ellier Les Bois, France.
Heirlooms from the Saunders family after their trip to Normandy, including a poster advertising in French the ceremony commemorating their relative, U.S. Air Force pilot Paul Chaufty. Chaufty’s plane crashed in the village of Saint Ellier Les Bois, France. (Photo: Mark Less, KSL-TV)

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

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

“It was amazing because at both locations they placed American flags right at the locations,” Nicole Saunders said. “And that was really moving to be in the middle of rural France and see American flags, you know, in honor of my uncle Paul.”

NBC Nightly News followed the Saunders as the village unveiled a memorial for Chaufty, the event spearheaded by Bastien’s family.

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

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

He said the trip was emotional.

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

The Saunders also met schoolchildren who had drawn pictures with an understanding of history.

“They haven’t forgotten, and they passed that on,” David Saunders said.

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

“He wasn’t just an isolated man,” they said. “He was part of something big and it was amazing how deeply they remember that and how deeply they were affected by it.”

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