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On the Fedala Road

ISSUE:  Autumn 1998

The thin light of the approaching daybreak always seemed to emphasize the strangeness and foreignness of our battalion’s bivouac area on a country road outside Casablanca. Every morning a heavy mist covered the land just before the sun rose. Then, as the light grew, odd-looking shapes and things came slowly into view. The trees and vegetation were especially strange to us. Dotted over the little plain which lay across the road in front of our camp were fig, olive, and some kind of thorn trees, none of which I had ever seen before. Their limbs seemed blasted into weird, almost tortuous attitudes, as though in despair and supplication.

Dim, moving figures behind the mist, dressed in ghostly white, materialized as Arabs perched upright on the hind quarters of spindly donkeys or walking along the road. In the pre-reveille silence of the sleeping camp, the men on guard duty could hear a low, chattering hum of voices through the fog; daylight would show, across the plain about a hundred yards away, a cluster of squalid huts built of reeds and mud. Women and children moved about among the huts, milking goats and tending to cooking fires. Robed men bent over prayer mats, rising and falling, rising and falling in the immemorial genuflection to Mecca. Travelers on the road into the city climbed down from their donkeys to spread prayer mats beside the road. On the other side of the bivouac area, away from the plain and the highway, lay a more familiar sight, high sand dunes which hid the Atlantic from view but which did not drown out the welcome roar of its surf; this sound plainly said, this way, across this sea lies the suddenly enticing safety of home.

We arrived in Casablanca in late January 1943, pulling into port alongside a French battleship, the Jean Bart, which had been sunk at its pier during the British-American invasion of North Africa a short while before. We debarked from our troopship about midnight, walking across the Bart’s deck which was now level with the pier. We could see no sign of the structural damage shells and bombs would have wreaked on the great warship; apparently, she was scuttled by her crew.

It was for nearly all of us the first step onto a foreign shore. In the darkness, it was impossible to keep to any marching formation, much less keep in step, and so we stumbled our way along the pier and out into the city streets. We could hear the sound and smell the spicy, exotic odors of an oriental city, but in the rigorously enforced blackout we could see almost nothing. From time to time we became aware of strange, spectral shapes floating toward us out of the darkness, uttering shrill, high-pitched cries, and it took us some time to realize that they were Arabs (Ayrabs to the Southerners among us) trying to sell us bottles of wine. As we marched along the darkened city streets out into the countryside, our full field packs soon became burdensome; we were out of shape after three idle weeks at sea. The march was a slow one, and we did not reach our bivouac area, about eight miles out of the city, along the road to Fedala, until nearly 4 a.m. A kitchen truck was already on hand when we arrived; for the first (and last) time, C rations were a welcome spread.

The next morning we could see that our pup tent encampment was situated around the rim of a shallow crater or depression in the sandy soil of the beach area. The battalion was divided into two parts: my company of about 90 men was located on the southern edge of the depression, on the side toward Casablanca, with the main body, more than 700 men, on the north rim and strung out along the road. A low ridge cut off our view of the sea, but the sound of the surf was plainly audible, at least at high tide. The crater was about 70 yards across and some 12 feet deep on its deepest side toward the sea; from the back, the sides sloped downward to the highway. During those first days few of us noticed a row of what looked like short fence posts lined up against the back wall of the depression.

We had little to do in the weeks we were in this camp. Afternoon passes into Casablanca were freely available, and on clear days we often went to the beach. Occasionally, squads of men would be taken by truck into the port area to help unload supplies from the ships streaming in from the States. We resented these duties because, as with all green troops, we valued the distinction between supply and combat men, which is what we were supposed to be. We were not even drilled or given any instructions in weapons handling, which in view of what lay ahead should have been done. These were in fact lazy, carefree days, which we would come to look back on with pleasure and longing. Today’s jaded tourists may see Casablanca as a somewhat humdrum place, but to us it was endlessly fascinating. The “exotic East” was still a fresh and meaningful perception to us, and we were thrilled to see actual camel caravans coming in from (we supposed) the Sahara. That desert, of course, was hundreds of miles away.

The city was full of people of different races and nationalities, wartime European refugees rubbing shoulders with Arabs, Berbers, Senegalese Goums (with whom we were to become acquainted a year later in the mountains of Italy), and men of other African nationalities serving in the French colonial army. The Moroccan Arabs seemed to be divided into two distinct classes, the very rich and the very poor. There was no gasoline available to the civil population, and most cars were powered by clumsy, charcoal-burning apparatuses that gave off a noxious black smoke. Some residents found a slower but more romantic means of transportation; they removed the engines from prewar Citroens, Renaults and Fords and hitched them to teams of horses. These vehicles drew elderly dowagers or dignified government officials slowly along the boulevards with a queer land of stately elegance.

The streets were full of military personnel, and one quickly became aware of the often slovenly appearance and movements of American troops in general, the draftees and citizen-soldiers in particular. All of us were seeing for the first time representatives of a breed alien to us, the European professional military man. The contrast between them—the soldiery of France, and later England, Germany and Italy—and us, the conscripts of American farms, cities and villages, was to me striking. I don’t remember ever seeing European soldiers of any nation walking down a street out of step, or, unless they were drunk on furlough, in an untidy state of dress. By comparison, many Americans were often sloppily dressed, slouching in deportment, awkward in movement, in short unmilitary. It seemed to me that our uniforms, while of top quality materially, were not designed with military purposes in mind, were simply civilian articles of attire that had been dyed brown. Groups of soldiers on a city street looked somewhat like grocers or Kiwanis members on a tourist junket, all dressed in brown slacks and shirts.

Within days of our arrival we began to hear rumors about the sinister use to which the little coastal depression was put by the French military. French officers came out from Casablanca to inspect the site and to confer with our colonel, an unpopular, fussy martinet who treated the visitors with what seemed to us as obsequiousness, even officers inferior to him in rank. For the first time, we saw the row of posts along the back wall of the hole, to which, we heard, men were tied to be shot.

I find it difficult now to understand why our officers were so unwilling to tell us anything about the intentions of the French, but it must have been a direct order from our commanding officer, Colonel Zimmer. There was no reason for secrecy, it can only have been that he had adopted the attitude of the French officers, who were, in those days, a medieval lot; they seemed to feel that giving any kind of information that was not strictly necessary to enlisted men was beneath them. All we were told was that one morning soon we were to have visitors not on mercy bent. It became the custom for the sergeant of the guard to warn those pulling sentry duty around the perimeter of the camp to keep an eye on the road to Casablanca, especially in the early morning hours, and to sound the alarm if any vehicles were seen coming our way.

And that actually was how it happened. We were awakened before dawn one morning by someone banging on a messkit. Far down the road we could see, in defiance of blackout regulations, the lights of a truck convoy of four vehicles moving slowly toward us. Along the beach area, one could see for long distances, and it seemed an age before the convoy reached our bivouac area. The reveille bugle sounded just as the first truck turned off the highway, but no one paid it any attention; there would be no roll call on this morning. Besides two troop trucks, there was a command car and a small van, the rear door of which, we noticed, was secured by a large padlock. The four vehicles were lined up and parked with military precision against the south wall of the depression, just beneath where the men of my company were lined up watching.(I can’t remember that a single man refused to watch the proceedings, but a subsequent execution drew a slim audience from among us.) Two soldiers jumped down from one of the trucks and took up guard posts at the rear of the van. The others remained sitting, at attention it seemed to us, in the trucks.

Colonel Zimmer and Sergeant Charette, one of the few French-speaking men in the battalion and who acted as an interpreter at battalion headquarters, walked down the sloping side of the depression toward the command car just as a French major and two lieutenants got out. The major was dressed in riding trousers and leather leggings, a formal military jacket, and all three officers wore the round, billed kepi, made familiar by many a Hollywood epic, such as Beau Geste. Colonel and major saluted and shook hands, the major introducing his colleagues to Colonel Zimmer; they saluted but did not shake hands. All three French officers were tall, slender men, while the colonel was rather short and squat in build; Charette, too, was somewhat short. To us, it seemed that Colonel Zimmer did most of the talking, with Charette interpreting. The three Frenchmen showed polite interest, but they seemed aloof, almost disdainful; they stood erect and hardly moved. The colonel, on the other hand, could not keep still. He fidgeted, gesticulated, stood first on one leg and then on the other, folded his arms across his chest, moments later jerking his hands down to his hips in an aggressive, arms akimbo stance. He seemed almost fawning in his attitude.

Presently, the conversation came to an end, and colonel and sergeant climbed up to where the other battalion officers were standing. Charette came over to join the enlisted men, and we were finally given at least a quasi-official report on what was about to take place. He said the van contained a prisoner, an Arab, who had been caught looting the bodies of dead and wounded French soldiers during the American attack on the coast near Casablanca. He was to be shot. He warned those few men who had cameras that the French would permit no picture-taking. After the execution, Charette said, the French officers, on Colonel Zimmer’s invitation, were to have breakfast in the officers’ mess.

Down in the crater, French non-coms were directing the proceedings. The three officers stood apart chatting, completely ignoring the activity in front of them and also ignoring the American officers standing just above them. At a shouted command, the French soldiers came out of the trucks, jumping over the tailgate onto the rough, sandy ground; they were joined by the two soldiers who had been guarding the van. We saw thirty fit-looking, sunburned men in the uniforms of the colonial army lined up in two columns being dressed off by a corporal. There came another command, and the columns moved off at quickstep toward the sandstone cliff at the rear of the depression. To raw, barely trained troops such as ourselves, the precise movement of these superbly trained men was little short of dazzling. We were not able to follow the corporal’s commands, and it seemed like magic that the 30 fast-moving soldiers ended up, without a misstep, in six five-men squads, three squads facing the other three across an interval of a few yards directly in front of one of the low posts just out from the cliff.

The sergeant in command walked to the rear of the van and unlocked the door. A Roman Catholic military chaplain and two guards stepped out, turning as they touched the ground to help the prisoner down. But there was no further movement; in a moment, the sergeant reached inside and, not unkindly, pulled the man out by the arm. We could see a short, rather bulky figure dressed in a dirty, brown cloak topped with a rough hood. The hood, looking somewhat like a monk’s cowl, completely covered the prisoner’s face. His hands were manacled in front of him, and the cloak was not quite long enough to cover the leg chains. He seemed on the point of collapse, and the two guards, slinging their rifles, took him by the arms. At a command from the sergeant, the guards moved forward, half dragging, half carrying the prisoner, whose head barely reached the shoulder level of the tall Europeans. Slowly, the little party, prisoner, guards, sergeant and priest, walked between the rifle squads, who stood at rigid attention, toward the post. On reaching it, the prisoner was turned to face the riflemen, and his hand manacles were removed. Silent until that moment, he suddenly let out a long, shrill scream, and his hands shot up, knocking the hood away from his head.

“Jesus!” It sounded as though the hundreds of soldiers lining the rim of the crater had given a collective gasp of astonishment. “He’s only a kid!” And it was true, he did seem very young, to most of us he appeared to be no more than 15 or 16 years old. Now that his head and shoulders were exposed, we could see that his body was malformed, and he looked like he was mentally defective. His head was too large, even for the chunky body; it was a misshapen head, pulled down on the right shoulder which was several inches lower than the left one. His rough features were contorted with fear. The shrill wail, once started, never ceased. It rose and fell unevenly, now rising to a near-scream and then falling back to a low, keening wail. For a few moments, the priest, holding a breviary in one hand, tried to gain the boy’s attention; failing, he gave up and joined the three officers standing to one side.

The boy was alone now with the two guards and a corporal. The latter offered a cigarette, but he was past heeding. In this last extremity, he must have felt a desperate loneliness, as well as terror. In his final moments on earth, he was cut off from the men of his own race and religion, surrounded by his killers, a priest of an alien faith and several hundred curious strangers from across the sea.

Fifteen minutes passed, then 30, then 45, the soldiers standing at ease. The sun was now well up from the horizon, but still the officers stood talking and laughing together. Did they possibly hope for a reprieve? The road to Casablanca, though full of the usual inbound traffic, was empty of vehicles headed toward our camp. Then, suddenly, the execution was underway, though none of us had heard a spoken command. Two corporals walked up to the post, grabbed the boy’s hands and tied them behind his back. He gave one last desperate scream and was silent, except for heavy, labored breathing. The non-coms forced him to his knees in front of the post, lashing him to it with a piece of rope around the chest and using the leg irons to secure the bottom part of his body. A black hood was dropped over the misshapen head and a black target patch covered the left breast. Then non-coms and guards walked away to one side.

One of the lieutenants stepped forward, in front of and to one side of the rifle squads. The sergeant barked out a command, and the middle squad on the right side of the post made a quick right-face, almost at the same moment moving off at double-time. As the head man in the squad came level with the lieutenant, he executed a left turn, the others following without breaking stride. Within seconds they were halted and given a right-face. Another barked order and the second and fourth man dropped to the kneeling position; at the same instant, all five men raised their rifles to the firing position. The lieutenant lifted his right arm, made a sudden slashing move downward, the volley crashed out, and the figure at the stake leaped forward, straining for a few seconds against the bonds before falling limp. Drawing his revolver, the lieutenant walked over to the stake and pulled the hood away from the boy’s head; with cool proficiency, he held the gun in both hands against the top of the still head and pulled the trigger. Without a backward glance, he walked away, blowing into the barrel of the gun before replacing it in the holster at his belt, and joined the other officers and the priest.

To the watching Americans, the shooting had been accomplished with stunning rapidity and efficiency. For a few seconds none of us stirred, except for one Pennsylvania boy who lay vomiting in the sand. I don’t think it is in any way an exaggeration to say that in this brief time we lost not a little of our New World innocence. In straggling groups, men began moving back toward the tent area, while others stayed to the end, watching the French soldiers place the body in a rough, wooden coffin and nail the lid shut. They lifted it into one of the trucks, then all the vehicles except the command car turned into the road to Casablanca.

The French officers and the priest climbed up the side of the crater to join Colonel Zimmer and his staff. The two groups bowed, shook hands, then walked together toward the officers’ mess tent, with Sergeant Charette in attendance. During the meal, he said later, Colonel Zimmer toasted the French on the successful and skillful completion of their mission, and he presented each officer with a carton of Lucky Strikes as a token of his esteem.


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