A CIVILIAN IN UNIFORM By Jean Kohn (continued)
Chapter Five - France - Operation PEG
One day in August we were told "OK, boys, here we go."
Where to? Southern France.
We were put, I would say, in a secret part of the camp or another place near the airport. We were ordered not to talk to anybody anymore, to gather all our gear, all our arms, knives, carabines, sub machine guns, plastic explosives, the works. We also had maps, 10,000 French francs and twenty 20-Francs gold coins. In addition we were given a note signed by U.S. General Benjamin F. Caffey saying:
To All Whom It May Concern
This soldier is a fully accredited representative of the Supreme Allied High Command. He has been instructed to join forces wherever possible with resistance units to wage unceasing war against the German invader for the liberation of France"
We started one night in a Halifax bomber from Blida airport, west of Algiers. This plane was manned by a mixed crew, the pilots were British, the "dispatcher" (steward) was Australian and we of course were American boys. But on that trip, that night, we did not jump. We came back. Why? Because (we learned later on) the place we were supposed to land on was under attack by the Germans.
This original jump site was the maquis of Picaussel, west of Quillan under the command of Lucien Maury. The night return to Blida was nerve racking since we were all prepared to go and jump.
We flew again on the night of August 10th and then we landed at another site Le Clat; near Axat not far from Quillan, due south from Carcassonne. We landed on a very very rocky type of hill. I think my buddy, Bill Straus broke one or two ribs, Sergeant Sampson hurt his coccis. Later on we said jokingly we landed on an anti-parachutist type field. But everything came out allright. In fact this site had been selected to receive equipment only and not paratroopers. The maquisard thought for a little while we were German paratroopers. It is a good thing they did not shoot at us.
As I landed, I kissed the ground—since I felt I was "back home" I remembered also a mythology tale of a giant called Antée, son of Poseidon and Gaia who would always be invulnerable as long as he touched his "mother," the earth. I had been impressed by this story and deep in myself I figured that if I kissed the French soil, I would also be invulnerable. I even wrote a poem later on this episode. Antée was killed by Heracles who held him off the ground and suffocated him. Well, the German "Heracles" was not there that day and I am still around to tell that tale.
Along with good omen stories, during the "drôle de guerre" in 1939/1940, my parents had rented a place in Granville, in Normandy south of Cherbourg as they were afraid Paris might be bombed by the Germans. This house faced west and many evenings I watched the sun go down over the ocean. There is an old belief which says that if a person sees the last ray which turns green as the sun disappears on the horizon, he will have good luck all his life. Every afternoon I would try to see this "rayon vert" as they call it in French. It took many days watching before I finally saw it one late afternoon—just a flicker of a light, but definitely greenish.
Not only did I kiss the ground like this mythological giant, but in addition I had seen the "rayon vert." Therefore I felt I would come back alive from the War.
More seriously, as soon as we landed, we met the FTP maquis (Francs Tireurs et Partisans) I did not even know what FTP meant at the time nor did we know that this group of "maquisards" was called Jean Robert-Faïta—for us it was the "Maquis." They were communists with a dual command: A political commissar (Jean Meyer) and a military chief (Lieutenant Michel—real name Adolphe Gomez). The maquisards saluted each other with a raised closed fist. To me this was not a surprise as I had been through the "Front Populaire" election explosion in 1936 when long parades of protesting socialists and communists would go throughout Paris saluting with their raised fists.
But to my American buddies who came from "middle town" United States, this was quite a novelty to say the least. I did explain that these communists and socialists were also very patriotic French boys—to no avail—especially to some of our fellows who came from the U.S. "Deep South" with good religious background.
We landed early in the morning of August 11th 1944 at the Clat. It was still dark. We heard some men talk French. Contact was made immediately. We collected our gear and all the containers filled with the equipment which had been dropped at the same time. There was a truck and some cars waiting for us. We loaded the whole lot of containers of arms and equipment and we went on the road hoping there would not be any Germans waiting for us since airplanes flying at night do make an awful big noise. We went to Salvezines from Axat, and then up the road to a house called the Nicoleau Farm (Ferme Nicoleau). There we were greeted by a whole bunch of young men, maybe two hundred, most of them young French boys who had refused to be drafted into the forced labor organization that the French Administration (Vichy Government) had worked out with the German nazis. This organization was called STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire) In other words the Vichy Government would send all these young fellows to work in Germany—as almost slave labor for a miserly pay. I presume (I am not quite sure of this ) that since conscription into military service was not in effect during the 1940/1944 period, the STO replaced it by "drafting" young men as they reached manhood.
Actually this law was supposed to work as follows: for three workers going to Germany, one French Army prisoner (1940) would be sent back home. Very few prisoners were sent back, in fact. In addition, since the Germans considered these French younsters as slave labor, many who went to Germany never came back as they died of malnutrition, others were shot as they revolted or reacted against bad treatment. After the War others died of tuberculosis or other sickness due to the bad treatment in Germany.
Somehow the bad news concerning the STO life conditions filtered out of Germany and when the Vichy Government called new batches of young men to present themseves to be inducted into STO, many of them fled and joined the maquis. Others crossed over the Pyrenees to Spain and tried to join either the Free French forces or, later on, the regular new French Government army in Algiers.
It can be said without downgrading the magnificent gesture these young men did by joining the various resistance groups, the maquis in general would have had less manpower since patriotism is one thing; but living in very poor, cold conditions, without much food is another thing. Many young men were city kids without much training for this kind of hard life.
One evening just as we were approaching Carcassonne, in a small town, probably Bram, we were billeted in various homes for the night. As luck would have it—unless it was done on purpose—I was assigned to a house where the lady who greeted me told me her son had commited suicide as he did not want to be sent to STO. He was studying at the Toulouse University. All evening I tried to talk to her—to no avail of course. What could I tell her as I was the same age her son would have been. I was full of life in perfect health. I slept in the boy's bed. I left early in the morning with an uneasy feeling. Why did that boy kill himself when it was so easy to join any maquis ?
That is why the maquis was "populated" in majority by fellows who had escaped that forced labor draft. But there were others—some older men who were politically "engaged"—communists, socialists, people who hated Vichy. There were also some Spanish Republic ex-soldiers who had escaped to France after the fall of the last bastion of the Spanish Republic in Northern Catalunia in 1939. Last but not least even some Jews who had miraculously escaped since they had been literally chased by the Gestapo helped by the French Milice from 1942 on. All this mix of people who did not want to get caught by either the Milice or the Gestapo ended up in the mountain hideouts. Arms were scarce and our mission was to help in teaching them the use of rifles—we had come with British Enfield rifles from World War One.
Each member in the maquis had an assumed name. The purpose of this was to insure the safety of the families back home should they get caught. One man whose real name was Jean Milner called himself "Kaplan." He was a Jewish young fellow from Paris. He had managed to work his way south and ended up in this group. I asked him why he had taken a typical Jewish "nickname," when it would have been much easier to be called Durand or Dupont. His answer, heroic or not was—"if I get caught, then I want to die with my head high as a Jew." To this day I cannot agree. A dead hero is dead.
We established our camp at the Ferme Nicoleau, near Salvezines.
We slept outside in our sleeping bags in the woods. In case of a surprise attack we could come out of the bags and fight back quickly without being caught in a house.
Right away we started to blow a few bridges. It turned out that the destruction of bridges on roads the Germans were not really using was a senseless exercise. One case in particular was especially bad: we half detroyed a railroad bridge which could not be used anyway since there was a derailed train convoy a few hundred feet down the line. We had learnt for months how to use these plastic explosives and we were really itching to have a go at a few bridges to show our new friends how good we were. One bridge on a secondary road was also blown very neatly one night. We forgot to put up a danger sign or some branches across the road. In the morning a French car came, the driver did not see the bridge had gone. He and his woman passenger were killed in the crash.
Our radio contact with Algiers did not work. I was told our operator sent a danger signal over the air which meant the Germans had captured us. Contact was established later on by the Resistance radio Group and Algiers did learn finally we were all right. I think our radio never worked. One thing that did work though was the power generator we had to crank while the radio man was working on his messages. It took a lot of elbow grease to turn the handles. We all took turns in working it. With all the good will of our radio man, Algiers did not answer.
The maquisards captured a few Germans—and most important, a member of the Milice who had done horrible things to other resistance fighters. His capture had been facilitated as first his girl friend got caught. She was frightened and forced to tell him to meet her in a cafe in Quillan. As he arrived he was jumped on by a few maquisards who took him up to our camp.
There he was "judged" by what I might call a kangaroo court after being beaten to a pulp. We were impressed to see what he went through and still be able to walk and stand up. He was condemned to immediate death and shot by firing squad the same day in front of all the maquisards and ourselves. I was a little shaken about the whole affair since the "court" was not a real one. But in those difficult days, revenge was high in everybody's mind against persons who not only had collaborated with the Germans, but worse, had acted as agents for the Gestapo by denouncing and killing other Frenchmen. At the same time, knowing what the Milice had done in that area, nobody felt sorry for that man.
This Milice man turned out to be courageous as he realized he did not have a chance to come out alive. He was taken to the execution area where he refused to be blindfolded and before beeing shot he did cry out loud and clear:
"Messieurs, Vive la France".
After this execution, we were served a "cassoulet." Believe it or not, our little OG group did not have much appetite. We were not really at ease. We had orders not to interfere in local affairs—and we did not. But this fast court martial followed by firing squad gave us the shivers.
The few German prisoners the maquisards captured were very young boys not even eighteen. Some were not even Germans. I felt sorry for them since they did not look like SS troopers. Maybe that is why they were captured easily. They were later on turned over to the French Army. We respected the Geneva Convention, we did not shoot them.
We armed the maquisards with the Enfield rifles, showed them how to load them and shoot. Then we started to work our way north to Quillan first and then toward Carcassonne.
Meanwhile a representative of the A.S. (Armée Secrète), the regular resistance movement (FFI - Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur) came to claim that the arms we had brought with us were for them and not for the FTP maquis where we were. I somehow acted as mediator and translator for our American officer in the argument that followed until we told all parties that we had to fight one enemy: the Germans. Therefore let's not have a fight between resistance groups. Some of our equipment might have been given to the A.S. for all I know.
All the maquis groups of the area, including ours, moved into Quillan shortly afterwards. Could we say that we "liberated" the town? Not really, since there were no Germans around. Neverhteless there was a festive feeling of freedom going around.
Then one day, a fateful day, August 17th 1944, we were told German troops from Carcassonne were on the move to take some food from a large warehouse near Alet, in Couiza. The German army had large food inventories at various places. We were told they had enough food to feed "one million men for ten days." Actually it turned out they had "only" 100,000 rations, which is still a lot to eat (It was French Army supplies taken over by the Germans). We did eat some cans of corned beef taken from that warehouse. French Army called this prepared meat "singe" (monkey meat). It was good and much better tasting than the run of the mill American C-rations.
In those days food was really scarce. If we could take that inventory away from the Germans, it would deprive them of their daily needs in their flight north. It would also be most welcome, not only by us, but principally by the local population. The Couiza warehouse was guarded by thirty and some German soldiers.
After the August 15th successful landing in Southern France, the German High Command had told their forces stationed in and around Toulouse to retreat at all speed toward the Rhône Valley and go north to avoid being taken in a pincer movement by the Allies coming from Normandy in the North and from the new beachhead in the South. The Carcassonne German command decided to move fast and take as much food as they could from Couiza. To protect their convoys, some well-armed soldiers were escorting the convoy. French civilians had been taken by the Germans to help load the trucks. The various maquisard groups tried to immobilize the convoys. Reinforcement was called in from Carcassonne and many poor French boys were surrounded and killed mercilessly by the German infantry. That was in the morning of August 17th. In the afternoon, the Germans took some hostages to walk in front of their trucks and started to go north toward Carcassonne. We were supposed to stop them.
I was always a volunteer for that kind of thing. Lieutenant Swank, Sergeant Galley, John Frickey, Rock Veilleux and myself started north from Quillan with explosives. I do not know what roads we took to go there. Apparently we must have gone unnoticed around Couiza and Esperaza. We were guided by our FTP maquisards. We were to blow the road north of Alet where the Aude river flows in a narrow gorge. The large stone falling from the cliff on the road would halt the German convoy who would have to stop to move the stones. Then we would shoot at them.
A so called red Cross ambulance came by going
south. The driver saw what we were up to and he told the Germans. The
enemy convoy infantry support rushed toward us faster than anticipated
and caught us not totally prepared. In addition, Lt. Swank and Sergeant
Galley had problems with the explosives which did not go off as intended.
They did not have enough time to set up another explosion. The road
was not blocked, and the large group of real tough German soldiers came
rushing up the road shooting with all they had.
Sergeant Galley was shot badly in the hand. He managed to escape.
As for myself, I was alone on the cliff overhanging the road where I had been told to be to cover the road. Two Germans came up on the cliff from behind. They wanted to shoot me. One of them said in German very clearly:
"Recht fünf meters." (on the right: five meters)
That was I they were talking about.
They threw a potato type hand grenade that landed real close and when it went off, my woolen cap blew off. I was hit on my right thigh (at the time I did not realize I was slightly wounded). Then I had three choices:
-I surrender - NO
-I fight back - NO, they were two with a sub machine gun and I was alone.
-I flee - Yes
I remembered our orders: Do not fight if "they" are more numerous than you.
So I fled.
I did not know I was wounded, even slightly. I went up the mountain. I heard some shots during the night. I slept in the mountain. I had been scared, scared, I mean very afraid to be shot, to be taken prisoner or I don't know what.
Night had fallen. I was so tired by then that I ended up in a bush way high on that mountain side feeding on a small roll of mint Lifesavers and fell fast asleep.
Early in the morning, I felt good since I was still alive. I figured the best way would be to go over the hill and see what I could do to get back to Quillan.
I went up to the top of the hill and down on the other side. It was a beautiful and warm summer day. The countryside was bare of houses. Not even cultivated fields. Just some trees and bushes. I finally saw a farm or what I thought did look like a farmhouse.
I looked at it for a long time to make sure there were no Germans there.
I ran a little, approaching it cautiously, stopped for a while, still inspecting it. Then I rushed in and asked quickly
"Any Germans around?"
Then, "Please give me something to drink."
They gave me some water and probably some food.
It seemed to me these farmers did not want to be involved in anything that had to do with fighting, especially with so many Germans around. But they did call for help and organized my pick up to have me return to Quillan.
Somebody came with a car. I think it was Mr. Barres. They put a civilian coat on top of my uniform. This was really extremely dangerous. I was hiding under a civilian coat. Should we have been caught by the Germans we might have been shot on the spot.
But no—we passed through a German held town, Couiza or Esperaza? Upon reaching Quillan, I found out that Paul Swank had died, had been killed. I was shocked.
After joining my group and telling them my story we went to receive Paul Swank's coffin on a square behind the church.
I remember vividly Lt. Weeks kneeling at the open coffin holding the cold hand of Lt. Swank as a farewell gesture. We then all went to the church where a religious service was held and from there to the cemetery where he was buried in a temporary grave.
The killing of my lieutenant really shocked me. It was the first death of one of us that we witnessed. You always hear about death in War, but that was "it." We had known him for such a short while before our mission. Yet this was as if we had lost an old time friend. That evening after the burial we were silent. Our little group felt very, very sad.
I was taken to a doctor to see if he could take the small piece of grenade from my thigh. He had what looked like a pair of thin long medical tongs. He tried, without success. Since he could not find it he told me the best would be to forget it and keep that piece of metal in my body as a war souvenir.
Up to that point we were not really motivated, but from that day on, we saw the War with a different eye. We were much more careful and cautious in taking up fighting positions. We did help take a few German prisoners, but we did not hold them, that was not our purpose. I think there was a rumour going around that said we took in 10,000 German prisoners. That's not right. Maybe some Germans did ask to surrender to us, Americans. They must have figured they would receive better treatment from us than from the French as they surely knew of some atrocities perpetuated a few weeks before by tough German units. I do not remember anything about all this. One thing is certain: we were not supposed to take any prisoners. That was not our job. What could a bunch of twelve American GIs do with prisoners anyway. How could we hold them? In chains?
Until the end of August when we entered Carcassonne nothing spectacular happened.
So we "liberated," Limoux, some other villages and ended up in Carcassonne.
In Limoux, we were invited to a big lunch by the father of one of our maquisards: Mr. Balateu. He had a butcher shop next to the church in the centre of town. He had a turn of the century type beard, a little like George the Fifth of England. He showed us medals from his service during World War One.
What a lunch. I can remember a beautiful cold veal roast. One of us refused a second or third helping. Mr. Balateu pushed one slice off the serving plate and said: "it already fell, so eat it".
We were also "officially" received by the city council—or what was left of it at the Hotel Modern & Pigeon. The "feast" there was made up of tomatoes from start to end in different accommodations. When we came out we certainly were still hungry.
"Collaborators" were caught. The local Gendarme Captain who seemed to have "collaborated" with the Vichy Government more than he should have, fled and was in hiding. Unfortunately his wife was caught and as was the "fashion" in those days, her head was shaved. She came to me to ask for protection as she was afraid she would be shot. I told her not to worry. Her hair would grow back. I was an American soldier with orders not to interfere in local politics. The "resistance" groups told me not to bother since she would not be beaten up or shot. Some other women were also shaved and paraded throughout the city. Many of these relatively young women had "collaborated" with German soldiers and the jealous French maquisards—husbands, fiancés, friends took their revenge on those poor girls. May be the "favours" they gave the Germans were to obtain some extra food? Anyway they should not have been so friendly with the occupant.
One morning while we set up position on a road, overlooking a wide plain, around noon, we heard church bells ringing all over the place. Somebody told us that Paris had been liberated. That same day we stopped an American officer who came down the road. He was an OSS man, probably a lone Jedburgh. He talked to our lieutenant, left and went his merry way.
As the Germans retreated at full speed, they abandoned Carcassonne. We moved in behind them. This is the way we "liberated" the city. We visited the old walled Cité as the first of many future American tourists.
We lived in a hotel next to the railroad station which a few days before had housed the local German Komandatur. Photos of Hitler, Goering and other Nazis were thrown on the ground, destroyed and burnt as the local people applauded.
We had a parade where we marched with other resistance groups.
There again, as the resistance groups took the city over, young women's heads were shaved. One girl in particular was badly beaten by parents of boys she had denounced and who had been killed by the Gestapo. I was told she had a swastika tattooed on her belly.
Once we had settled I said to myself: this is not far from Toulouse. I had been there three years before. We had been "given" three old cars to move around. The beautiful Plymouth my parents had left behind might still be there. I told Lt. Weeks that I could may be get "my" car which would be better than what we were driving.
Some medicine or vaccine had to be brought in from the Pasteur Institute in Toulouse. Could somebody travel there and get it? Immediately I said I would go. My idea was to go to Toulouse, visit the Pasteur institute for the medicine and then get the car. I could see myself returning in triumph with this good American car. I took the train one early morning. Some trains were still running. I went to the Pasteur Institute, talked to the doctor there. Once he had given me the package I was supposed to take back to Carcassonne he started talking to me as he could see the American flag on my shoulder. I spoke French and he was happy to have a good conversation with an American!!!
It was very strange. He asked me who I was. Then he started to talk politics, right in the middle of the War. Toulouse had just been freed from German occupation. He nonetheless criticized "the Americans." This is so typical of France. Here we are, American soldiers, who liberated the country. I know the French resistance "helped" but really the American Army in the Southern front did most of the fighting. He was criticizing U.S. policies, saying that Americans were "big" children, who could not understand European politics, etc. It was the first time I heard such anti-American criticism—even though I have been through this same misunderstanding time and again until now. I did not argue. I let him talk. Why should I start an argument. He was much older than I was and a doctor on top of that.
While I was looking for my car I met some French officers who were resistance fighters. Toulouse was in a political vacuum. This situation became to be known as the Republic of Toulouse, on a communist vein. These French self nominated "colonels" were accompanied by some strange slightly dressed girls—strange to me an innocent 19 years old GI. I could not understand what these "secretaries" were doing there with what seemed to be an Army Headquarters.
I finally went to look for my car. I found it. The garage owner said it was MY car alright but he could not give it to me since it had no tires.
"What do you mean, no tires?"
He then explained the Vichy Administration had come to "requisition" good tires and he could not say "no."
Thank God I could not recover the car. This saved it. After the War my parents got it back, put rethreaded tires on and sold it to some good friends of ours who needed a car badly. If I had taken it they would never have seen it again.
As we settled we pondered what to do next since our orders were:
If you are overcome by the Allied troops, present yourself to the first American officer, French officer or whoever, and say who you are. You will be directed to the proper American unit in charge of OSS.
If peace is declared before you are overcome by Allied troops, go to a German officer, tell him you are American.
There was no peace, we were not overcome. There was vacuum, nothing.
So what can we do now? Lt. Weeks said that since there was nothing else for us to do in that area, we should take the cars and go toward the coast to look for our Colonel. We were already at the end of August. We started to travel with three cars. One of them was an American Cord. It was a beautiful front wheel drive car, but it had some gasoline feed trouble since the line from the gas tank to the engine was probably blocked by rust as the car had been idle a long time. Lt. Weeks was trying on and off very hard to get it working.
We loaded all our gears in the cars and started off going east. We were only twelve of us since Lt. Swank had died and Sgt. Galley who had been badly wounded in the hand the same day Lt. Swank was killed was in a hospital, probably temporarily in Quillan or Carcassonne.
We were overcome by the French Army, either in Montpellier or in Narbonne. We were astounded to see a "real" army on the move. Tanks, trucks, large trailers and dust, dust, more dust all over.
There we were—not so clean foot soldiers in old French cars. We landed in Marseille on our way to our Headquarters, the Seventh Army's in Sainte Maxime. It was night time and we slept in a strange hotel which happened to be a "call house"—without the girls!!!
I had never been in a call house in my life. Mirrors all over the place. One of my friends told me to "wake up and see where you are."
The next day we arrived at either Saint Tropez or Sainte Maxime where the Seventh Army Headquarters were. We presented ourselves. Lt. Weeks knew who to ask for. Again I was astounded by the organization. There were rows of tents filled with officers of all grades, women soldiers, (Women Army Corps, the Wacs) working as secretaries with typewriters, radios. This was a huge army field office.
We were told that our chief officers, Col. Livermore and Major Cox were in Grenoble with other OGs.
They serviced our cars, gave us supplies and we were on our way to Grenoble.
The "service" station was on a football field with what looked like a huge garage full of equipment to fix and repair cars and trucks. I had my driver's licence. I was in charge of one car. I asked a soldier mechanic for some gas. He showed me a large tank trailer with hoses similar to those we have in gas station. I inquired how much we could take —"until it overflows." For me this was quite a surprise since we had been on a small ration with stolen gas in the maquis, and then from Carcassonne to the coast, with every drop worth more than gold. And there we could load all we wanted. We were also given filled jerry cans to have enough fuel to reach Grenoble. The American Army is known for being generous.
We arrived in Grenoble one late afternoon. We did not know where to go. We were going aimlessly around town Suddenly somebody said: "there is Red," one fellow from another OG group with red hair.
Our outfit had established its quarters in the Maison des Etudiants. This was a University student dormitory. Since it was August, the University was closed and we lived in that building which was quickly renamed "Hotel Cox."
Some groups had already finished with their missions and we were slowly regrouping one by one in Grenoble.
My room mate was John Frickey. I had the feeling I was back in school again.
The first thing I said to myself: I must find my grandmother. She must be around here somewhere.
I went to the Lycée de Jeunes Filles (Girls High School ) to inquire about a friend of my mother who was teaching there in 1940. I met the door keeper. I asked him "Do you know where Miss Schulhof lives??" She had taught Physics and Chemistry in that school. Being Jewish, she had been dismissed. That poor concierge was scared since Germans had occupied the city until a few weeks before. He did not seem to make the difference between Germans and Americans. He insisted I see the Head Mistress. I told him not to disturb her. All I wanted to know was this teacher's address as she would be able to give me a lead on where my grandmother could be.
I met the Head Mistress who gave me the address I was looking for. I am recording this item at this time since the Head Mistress of the school was the mother of my future wife and it was there and then we met for the first time.
I went to that address. I called from down a steep stairways. They were two sisters, one a high school teacher and the other a piano teacher. I told them who I was. They could not believe their eyes to see me in an American uniform. It was a beautiful reunion. They were two "old" spinsters, very good friends of my mother. One of them had taught us the piano. I was not a good player. She used to get upset at my playing. But at this time we did not talk about piano. They thought that my grand mother could probably be near Chambéry, hopefully still alive.
Chambéry is not far from Grenoble. Lt. Weeks understood my request for time off to try to locate my grandmother. He gave me a three-day pass and the free use of one car, a front wheel drive Citroen.
I went to Chambéry, saw a lady, doctor Bourgeois, who was supposed to direct me to my grandmother. She told me effectively that my grandmother was alive and was probably in Montmélian, not far from there in an orphanage and old people home. I first went to see a priest who had saved a young cousin of mine whose father had been shot dead in the street and whose mother had been sent to Germany, never to come back. He directed me to the orphanage. I asked for Madame Jacques. Her real name was Madame Jacques Volfin, but to hide from the Germans and French Milice, she was called only Madame Jacques.
She looked at me and said, "Here you are, I was waiting for you."
Can you imagine, she was waiting for me? All she knew was that we had left three years earlier for the U.S. France being occupied by the Germans, we had not been able to correspond for three years. She must have hoped all along for us to come back.
Somehow she was not surprised. It all seemed natural to her.
I spent three beautiful days with her.
She told me all kind of stories. We recalled the good pre-War days when we used to have lunch at her house in the furniture district of Paris where her husband (my grand father) had started as a sculptor—not a good one—and ended up as a lumber importer.
She was a typical Parisian seamstress—with a very straight talk—and as I expected, there were some nuns she liked, others she did not—but in general she was most grateful to be alive in that hidden place. The Gestapo had looked for her and some of her grand children who were with her then. I don't know how they escaped.
I could not stay with her all the time. I had taken a room in a small local hotel next to the orphanage. There was another man there who had also taken a room for a day or so. We took our meals at the same time. He was a traveling salesman. I do not remember what he was selling, but for me it seemed so strange that civilian life was going on in a normal way as if there had not been upheaval around. Certainly life must go on and this man needed to sell his wares—war or no war. Less than a month before I had almost been killed. There in front of me was this man going around doing his business as if nothing extraordinary had happened.
The orphans were very young children. I took time to go with a young nun in charge of those kids. She asked me to come along on a small outing in the fields close by. I had talked a lot to my grandmother and I felt that a little change would be good especially with all these little kids I felt sorry for. But believe me or not: that young nun, as she talked and looked at me seemed to blush. I did not pay much attention to this. When I returned to Grenoble and told my buddies this little story they all joked me saying I should have given her a kiss. What a shame to say that. But boys are boys forever.
The nun in charge of cooking was from Poland. She was a small plump woman. One day she cooked some fried eggs for me in what was probably goose fat. In the Army we only ate powdered eggs. I cannot explain how good these fried eggs were. Long after I had dreams of good fried eggs. When I returned to New York in April 1945 for a month furlough my mother tried hard to duplicate the "nun's fried eggs recipe." I kept saying hers were not as good as the nun's. How bad a young man can behave with his mother. But maybe the memory of those eggs had more to it than just taste. It was the joy to have seen my grandmother and the two thoughts were bound and related to each other. Would Freud have an idea on this?
The three-day pass ended too quickly. Before leaving I offered to take the head nun to Chambéry to do various errands, mostly to get food and clothes for her care of children and old people. Food was really scarce. We went from office to office and ended up at the railroad station since she was supposed to travel to Annecy further north. She was a very active and strong willed efficient woman. She told me "If we don't see each other in this world..." I stopped her cold right there and then and said that in that case where she was going to go after death was not where I would be allowed to go... She raised her arms looking at the sky and told me not to say that... My sense of humour has never changed.
I went back to Grenoble, saw my future wife, Renée, many times. I asked her to come along to a dance organized by our Group with parachutes hanging from the ceiling in the main hall of "Hotel Cox." Since I had never danced in my life and still do not know how to dance, she was not very happy about going to her first ball with this young American soldier who could not even dance. But I did not let her free either to go and dance with other fellows as in America when you have a date you stay with that date all the time. To this day she still is not happy of what happened that evening.
On a more serious and sad vein one morning in September we had a memorial service in Saint Joseph church. The church was filled. I sang in the choir with Bill Strauss among others. Life magazine published an article and some pictures of the OGs in this church in the fall of 1944.
We had a group of OGs in the Alps, in the Queyras Valley. They were still holding off German troops coming over from Italy. They were short of food. I volunteered to go with a small and old Citroen truck full of supplies. I believe that truck was working on coal (power gas system) The OGs were in Abriès, near Briançon, living in a hotel. One fellow played the piano the evening we stayed with them. No Germans in sight. Some had been seen on top of the mountains on the Italian border. All looked quiet. This seemed like summer vacation, not real life.
As we were going back, in the valley, we met some French soldiers, actually they were Moroccans, called Goumiers, headed by a French captain with a big beard. They asked where we were coming from? We told them from Abriès. They were surprised to hear there were no Germans there.
Then the enemies did come and we heard later on that the regular French army shot at that village with 105 howitzers. We did not suffer any casualties. May be the 105 shells were not needed for that type of operation. Some villages were badly hit.
Talking about wrong shells falling at the wrong places—we had another OG group in the Rhône valley in Crest, near Valence. They were supposed to blow some bridges to slow down the German army in retreat and prevent them from going into Italy, I presume. They were told by Algiers not to touch the bridges. Then B-17 type bombers came over, dropped a whole bunch of bombs from very high altitude, missed the two bridges but destroyed a good part of the down town area killing many civilians. Can you imagine our American boys next day trying to explain why such a mistake did happen ?
This is the type of "snafu" (as it is called) where the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.
As time went by and we had all regrouped in Grenoble, we were asked who wanted to volunteer to go to China. We had a choice to stay in Europe and probably join a paratrooper division, like the 82nd Airborne, or go to China to do the same job we had done in France. We practically all volunteered to go to China since China is a long, long way from Europe and the USA. We all figured that by the time we would get there the War might be over. There was already a feeling of victory in the air as the Germans were retreating fast and in the Pacific, MacArthur was on the offensive from island to island. On the other hand, if we stayed in Europe we might have to join an Airborne Division. This might be "dangerous" since the Germans were not quite finished and they were tough enemies. Bastogne was still to come around.
Only two men did not go to China, one of them was Raymond Gaillaguet who is a good friend and became my elder daughter's Godfather.
We took the train from Grenoble to Marseille. Then we boarded a British ship to go to Naples. Upon arriving in Naples, I did not feel well. During the ocean trip I thought I was just seasick. But this seasickness did not stop upon arrival. I saw our doctor who told me I had jaundice. I was put in a hospital. All the OG boys left for home. I was left behind. I was not too happy since they all arrived in time for Christmas. There was a song at the time "Dreaming of a White Christmas," and there I was in a hospital bed.
This Army hospital had been set up in a Naples fair ground. In fact I had hepatitis along with all the other patients. I did not feel bad, just weak. Some doctors and nurses were from Mount Sinai Hospital, NY. They had been drafted or volunteered to go together. I knew Mount Sinai. It was close to my home. A friend of my parents was a surgeon there.
I asked a nurse how come she was only a first lieutenant while her friend from the same promotion was a captain? She answered with a grin: "I am not a beautiful blonde!!!"
We were treated with plasma—every day we were given a transfusion. They could never find my vein and a nurse spread the idea that I had no heart.
After quite a while—may be three months—I got well. I was discharged and went on to Caserta where the OSS had a small office with a captain, a lieutenant and maybe three or four soldiers. The captain was an Italo-American man. He spoke perfect Italian and was very good and helpful to people around. There was a book at that time entitled "A Bell for Adano." We all joked and said that this officer was the man the author had taken as character for the book. He had visited me in the hospital to see if everything was well. I even talked to him on the telephone—a special phone system put up by the Army.
He took good care of me and organized my trip back to the USA. From Caserta I went to a school house in downtown Naples. The school had been taken over by the American army for soldiers like me who did not have a regular outfit to go to. Since I did not have much to do while I was waiting for transportation back to the USA, I went to Pompei on a trip organized by the Red Cross. That trip cost me ten cents. Even in 1944 that was not expensive. It even included a spaghetti dinner!!!
I had signed up for correspondence courses in English and maths. I worked a little on these subjects while I waited for the ship to come along. I boarded what seemed to be an oil tanker. It was a U.S. Coast Guard troop carrier with even more passengers than I had seen on the trip over on a Liberty ship. There again two meals a day at odd hours with Navy beans, bad coffee and cold stormy weather in the Atlantic Ocean.
Upon arrival in New York, I "escaped" from the pier for a short while to visit home and kiss my mother.
As I arrived home she was on the telephone copying a cable from my father from Ecuador. She could not hang up. She kept on writing with one hand holding my hand firmly with the other. I could not stay but for a few minutes.
My orders were to go right away to Washington to report to the OSS offices.
When I arrived, the Captain in charge of OGs greeted me warmly and gave me a one month furlough.