Whenever anyone mentions Paris to me, memories op off in my head like firecrackers on Bastille Day. I can still see the inside of the Metro car as I boarded it one night in early September 1944. That in itself was an event. Before la liberation that August half a century ago, the m6tro didn’t run at night, only for an hour or so at commuting hours and midday, and as for the line to the industrial faubourg of Pantin, where I was stationed, not at all. And as for the necessities of life, like food and drink, Parisians had been on or near starvation rations for months. As the Allied Forces advanced, trains into the city had stopped running. Transportation depended on trucks and taxis powered with wood-burning contraptions welded on their rear ends, and horse-drawn wagons, sometimes with a cow pulling half the load. Many of the people on that subway car had probably never seen a real live soldat américain in the flesh before. At the time I was 28, a technician fourthgrade, meaning I wore sergeant’s stripes with a big T over them. Though I wasn’t quite six feet tall, I was bigger than most Frenchmen, especially with the huge steel helmet which we all wore — there were still snipers hiding out in the city.
Wherever we went, in our dark-brown uniforms we were unmistakable, and we always got a sign of recognition, sometimes just a nod and a smile, more often the common but heartfelt greeting, “Merci, m’sieur.” Frankly, I felt no discomfort whatsoever at receiving their gratitude. I’d been in France almost three months, since the Normandie invasion, and I’d been scared, miserable, and cold most of the time. I was also in pain: my damned back was killing me. All the seats were taken, and a few people were standing in the vestibule at the end of the car, so I stayed by the door, looking for something to hold on to. The train jerked into motion and caught me off balance. A lightning bolt of pain hit my back and shot down my leg. I went down on one knee. The tears came to my eyes and for a second everything was a blur. Several French passengers helped me up.
“Attention, m’sieur,” somebody said, and pointed into the car. Everybody, I mean tout le monde, was standing up, pointing to the seats they’d vacated/For me.
So I nodded my head, muttered “Merci,” went to the nearest vacant seat, and sat down. Several people gathered around, asked if I was all right, and when I answered in my schoolboy French with a Virginia accent they all said how marvelously I spoke the language and chatted like old friends all the way to Pantin.
This was my second trip to Paris. The first time was in the summer after my sophomore year in college, when with two friends I paid Lykes Brothers Steamship Company $50 for the 21-day voyage from New Orleans to Le Havre. I spent most of what money I had in the Rue des Galléons at Le Havre, hitchhiked to Paris, sleeping on the hay (sur le paille) in farmers’ barns along the way and in Le Palais du Peuple, the French Salvation Army, when I got there. Then I hitchhiked back to Le Havre and wired home for money. Not exactly an educational trip, although I did observe the Mona Lisa observing me, and learned what the American Express people mean when they say don’t leave home without it.
And of course it enabled me, from then on, to say with complete veracity that I studied in Paris one year.
You’d naturally assume, from the public relations copy flooding the airwaves and print from that giant institution, the United States Army, that there was some connection between this soldier’s language skill and his appearance in Paris right after its liberation. Actually, not only did the U.S. Army have no idea that it was going to send me into Paris in August of 1944, it had no intention of sending any ordinary GI anywhere where near the city. In the great scheme of battle as drawn up by Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, under the command of General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower with his assistants from the Canadian, British, and French Armies, and especially Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, all combat forces were to stream right past Paris, avoiding the city completely on their way to Germany.
The reasoning was militarily sound. A new form of warfare, the perfection of which dated from General Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign in 1862, and was just about completed by another Virginia Military Institute stalwart, General George S. Patton, was unleashed upon the Germans in the summer of 1944. Once the Allies were securely in France, on the continent, with men and guns and tanks and gasoline and the trucks to move it, and once a hole had been driven through the German lines between Avranches and Falaise, Patton and his Third Army put on a demonstration of what is now textbook operations. Instead of sending great masses of men up against other great masses of men, until then the accepted method of warfare, the tanks and armored vehicles of the Third Army went scooting around the flanks of the Germans to meet on the other side of whatever size unit, from squad to army, was in their way. They then destroyed its military capabilities. Whether you blow a man up or take him back and feed him, he’s destroyed as a fighting force and you can start scooting around the next objective.
In this style of warfare a gallon of gasoline and the truck to move it become almost as important as the armored vehicle you put it in. It was this gasoline that was the important factor in the decision to bypass Paris. The AEF still had not developed enough ports on the French coast to bring in enough gasoline, and the transportation battalions were driving day and night over war-torn French highways to get what there was up to the fighting front. And with every gallon of gas delivered, the armored columns gobbled more enemy territory and the Red Ball Express had even further to go.
Between the overworked ports and Germany and the end of the war lay a huge mass of urban real estate with three and a half million hungry Parisians. To stop and enfold them under the Allied wing would mean the diversion of thousands of gallons of gasoline to bring in tons of medical supplies and food over a decrepit highway system that was already functioning over capacity.
If General Eisenhower, a master of military management, didn’t have immediate plans for Paris, you can imagine how much I, an enlisted man living in a hole, knew about my plans. In fact, my plans for being a military man had gone awry from the start.
In May of 1943, 1 finally got in the Army, after trying since the spring of 1939. During those years I was officially listed in the national press book as military editor of the New Orleans Item. I had interviewed generals and admirals and specialists in many military fields. I’d interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Lewis B. Hershey himself, the expert on both the draft and placement of personnel, and had written thousands of words on how in the new Army recruits were carefully evaluated and assigned to the proper niche for their talent and abilities. So I was assigned to basic training in the Medical Department, and wound up in a new unit, the 31st Medical Depot Company. If there was one thing I knew absolutely nothing about, it was medical supply. So much for my proper niche in the new army.
One day in late May 1944, about 20 of us brave soldiers of the advance platoon of the 31st boarded a boat at Milford Haven on the west coast of England. It was an overnight ferry built in the 1870’s. Our commanding officer, Captain Rudolph Kelemen, was one of the winners of the Army selection system. He was a pharmaceutical salesman who’d been put in medical supply and became an excellent officer. Having heard that I had traveled extensively in France, he took me aside, showed me a map of the French coast, and asked me where we were going. I had to admit that I had never heard of a French town called Utah Beach.
We cast off and sailed away, right out to the middle of the harbor. There we sat, playing cards for the freshly-printed French francs we’d all been given, as May turned into June. Then, with a great deal of excitement, we put out from Milford Haven one night, rounded the coast of England, and proceeded up the English Channel. There were boats everywhere, big ones, little ones, though none as old as ours. One huge gray English thing called a monitor was anchored out of sight of land, throwing in monstrous shells to some unseen destination ashore. As we proceeded on, in the same direction of the shells going whump-whump overhead, we thought what a nice job those sailors had.
As we worked our way in the boats got smaller, from troopships to landing craft, the noise louder and the fireworks more spectacular. I presumed the planes flying around overhead were German, because everybody was shooting at them. On deck it was like somebody was throwing gravel at us as shrapnel rattled down. I pointed out to somebody that we were actually in a red glare from the bombs bursting in air, but he just groaned.
The boat stopped moving. The Army was up to its old habits as far as I was concerned, for the next day word came down that we were off of Omaha, not Utah. Our ferry boat captain had taken us to the wrong beach. At the time I did not realize what was going on, but in the years since the boat finally made its way along the coast to Utah Beach, and we proceeded to shore by a series of progressively smaller landing craft, I’ve come to be most grateful for our skipper’s navigational shortcomings. On the beach, where we were greeted by shells from a German. 88, and as we climbed up the steep littoral and into France, we learned from the dead and wounded and stragglers that our tardiness had caused us to miss out on some extreme unpleasantness.
As the combat forces expanded the beachhead, the rest of the company came to join us and we moved on closer to the front. One morning there was a roar overhead and planes, American planes, filled the sky. Then from the east came one steady roar as they dropped their bombs. Many years later, in the 50’s and 60’s, some of the men’s magazines I wrote for got off on a World War II kick, and I wrote hundreds of thousands of words on battles and heroes from the North Atlantic around to the Aleutians. One of the articles was on the breakthrough at St. L6, and in researching it I realized its significance, and my nearness to it. Like pulling a plug, it enabled the Allies to pour through the defending Wehrmacht. We dropped so many bombs there that what German soldiers weren’t killed or wounded were so stunned by the sheer noise that they were wandering around harmlessly while our tanks and armored infantry clattered on deeper into France—followed by medical supply.
The crumbling of the German defenses and the seizure of the advantage by the Allied Expeditionary Forces set many sub-plots in play. To one of those who almost deified our military leaders of the time—the austere master, George Marshall, the affable coordinator, Dwight Eisenhower, the scholarly genius, Omar Bradley—their wide-eyed failure to accept information is astonishing. So is the indecision of German generals, the most professional soldiers of all. The commanders of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur and the French Second Armored Division wasted their efforts squabbling. Only the Frenchman Churchill called the heaviest cross he had to bear, General Charles DeGaulle, knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it.
All he wanted, all imperious six-foot four of him, was to lead the French Army—2nd Armored, Resistance forces, everybody— into Paris, marching at the head of the parade. As the rest of the AEF squirmed and screamed in protest, he went right ahead organizing it.
We can understand the frustration of our general staff in as far as this megalomaniac was concerned. If DeGaulle had his way, it would detract from the entire European campaign.
This, as a strategic fact, is not difficult to understand, once it’s brought out into the open. At the time the military situation was one generals dream of. The British, Canadians, and French Armored were driving to the northeast from Le Havre. The American First Army was moving steadily northward west of Paris. And best of all, the American Third Army was already past Paris to the east, its armored divisions en route to the Rhine. The German army was falling to pieces. Military strategists could at last dream of the ending of the war. But to stop and take Paris, and then devote the gasoline to restoring it, would cost an inordinate amount of gasoline as well as other priceless ingredients of war. It would prolong the war. And another dire thought: that meant the Russians, unimpeded by Paris, would make an even deeper advance into Germany by comparison.
But what about another phase of warfare, what some refer to as an oxymoron, military intelligence? How come nobody knew about, or even suspected, Hitler’s plans for Paris? What he had in mind for Paris was quite simple—burn it to the ground, scorch it. As Allied Forces neared the city, strategic points in the city were mined extensively with explosives so that whole blocks of world-recognized landmarks would be leveled. A wing of the Luftwaffe worked out a schedule to expend its last bombs on a designated section of the city. The commander of the V-1’s, which exploded and killed you before you even heard them coming, had his orders to rain them on the city.
Most people would probably agree that Paris, at least in mid-century, was the most beautiful city in the world, the most recognized center of art, of culture. One man wanted it wiped from the face of the earth, as Rome had destroyed Carthage, and he had the power to do it. I guess that if you’re from Kansas, and the type of fellow about whom a whole nation says “I like Ike,” such a scenario is not imaginable. Nor, even in hindsight, is there an answer to what the AEF could have done to save the city if anyone had thought about it.
But in any case, there is no record of any of the commanders of the Allied Expeditionary Force, whether American, English, French or Canadian, or their staff, even mentioning that Paris was in danger, much less proposing action to defend it. They didn’t even want to take it.
There is an indelicate expression, je m’en fous, which expresses French opinion of Allied caution. DeGaulle ignored SHAEF’s attempt to keep him in Algiers where he had headed the provisional government of France. He commandeered a plane, flew through a storm to land in France with a thimbleful of gas in his tank, and headed for Paris to take it himself if necessary. Resistance leaders, mostly Communists who’d been fighting the Germans on home soil, with the constant danger of capture, torture, and death, began taking over Paris immediately from within, regardless of the potential loss of life and property, in order to consolidate their political position. They set up barricades in Paris, sniped German soldiers and French collaborators, and started neighborhood firefights.
Eisenhower could no longer keep the French down on the farm. They all headed for Paris. SHAEF played it as safe as possible, allowing the French Armored to make its entry into Paris on the Champs d’Elysées, but sending the American Fourth Infantry Division, which had been in combat since D-Day, to parallel the grand parade on the south.
It all seems so natural today, General DeGaulle striding along tout seul in front of his troops on Le Jour de la Liberation, August 26, that we forget that it just couldn’t have happened. Here we were in the middle of a global war which was not about to end, in a city still containing enemy troops and armed collaborators, well within range of artillery, planes, V-1’s and V-2’s, and the leader of the Republic marches down the avenue on schedule without even wearing a helmet. And he didn’t get a scratch.
Why didn’t the Germans carry out their orders to destroy Paris, to defend it house by house, man by man, as at Stalingrad? The generals in charge just simply failed in their mission. The general sent to Paris by direct order of Hitler expressly to supervise the destruction kept putting it off. Finally he put on his dress uniform and led his staff out to surrender. After a year or so in captivity he went home to live happily ever after. Somewhere near the Arc de Triomphe there should be at least a small plaque commemorating the little known fact that the city of Paris owes its existence to the indecision of a Prussian general, Heinrich von Choltitz.
That left Paris, almost intact, in the hands of the Allies, whether they wanted it or not. It never occurred to me at the time, as a T/4 in Medical Supply, to feel any great concern for Supreme Headquarters, but I can see now how the generals and their staffs must have been very upset. You don’t take military objectives the size of Paris weeks before you’re supposed to. What’s surprising is how quickly somebody made the decision, and passed it down from SHAEF to Comm Z to AdSec and eventually to our colonel to move the advance platoon of the 31st Medical Depot Company to Paris.
Knowing that I had studied in Paris one year, the officer commanding the trip asked me about our destination, a suburb called Pantin. I replied, patiently, that my life in Paris had been more cosmopolitan. Actually, even if I had entered Paris through the Port de Pantin a hundred times, I, or any other GI being moved around that day, could never have been prepared for the trip itself, and the contrast between points of departure and destination.
If somebody said to me, then or now, “Close your eyes and visualize Paris,” I would see sidewalk cafes on wide attractive streets, chic shops and townhouses, and artists on rooftops, just like in the film, An American in Paris. I would not see the area around the Porte de Pantin. Dredging up a memory of 50 years, I see grimy industrial buildings of grayish stucco, dirty narrow streets, and a neighborhood bar on a corner. Our precise destination in Pantin was a warehouse complex composed of two eight-story buildings of gray cement, and a large dormitory-type building across an area of flagstones.
The currently popular word seamless was not then in use, but it precisely describes the operations in that warehouse on our arrival. German supply had troops who worked in the warehouses and slept in the barracks. They left one afternoon, and we came in that night and went to work the next day doing the same thing. The only deviation from military routine was that they had not made their beds. As we had not seen beds, made or unmade, for months, we were able to put up with the inconsideration.
Our first job was to decide what to keep and consolidate it to make room for the Allied stuff coming in. Wandering around the various floors, we were amazed at what the Germans had stored up for themselves. For four years they had been systematically appropriating everything that grew in France. We had heard stories of shortages from the local people. Now we could see why—it was all right here in our depot. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time to those first days in Pantin and, knowing what I know now, eat my way through all eight floors in both buildings. Alas, at the time I did not appreciate the finest paté aux truffes from Strasbourg, say or other fine foods from every part of France. One day I was checking over a floor with a sergeant named Edelstein. His eye fell on a section of tins and he stopped talking in mid-syllable. “Look at that,” he said, as though he’d spotted the Hope diamond. He reached over to the shelf, took out a can, pulled out his knife—we all carried a special issue six-inch sheath knife to open boxes with—and opened it. He dipped in his fingers and began shoving the contents in his mouth. “What is it?” I said. “What you got there?”
“Mmm, Mmm,” he grunted with his mouth full and shoved the can at me. It just looked like sauerkraut to me, not exactly a Virginia delicacy. But I took a fistful, and I could understand. It was sauerkraut, all right, but that’s like saying Beluga caviar is fish eggs. (We had that, too.) It was aged in wine and was delicious.
The floors on which we did our best job of consolidation were those where wines and liquors were stored. Much of that consolidation was of the individual method—right down the little red lane. And again I feel like smiting my forehead and crying out in anguish as I think of my wasted opportunity. If only I had known the secret oenological wealth those dusty bottles contained. At the time I had lived for several years in New Orleans, but my gustatory experience as far as wine was concerned was restricted to a few dinners at Antoine’s or Arnaud’s, and except for the rare occasions when somebody was picking up the check to impress the newspaper reporter, that newspaper reporter didn’t buy great wine, if indeed there was any available. Most people in New Orleans at the time drank beer, a nickel a glass, a dime a bottle. Today I think of the many GIs who stayed on in Europe after the war for degrees in language, art, and other disciplines they would teach the rest of their lives. I also think of the select few experts writing for the food and wine columns and special magazines, and I realize that that depot could have been my Sorbonne. Working assiduously at my assigned job, consolidating, I could have picked up a foundation in oenology to support me the rest of my life. I didn’t know then exactly what was stored on those shelves, but it’s reasonable to assume that they contained several vintages of both Chateau Petrus and Chateau Lafitte Rothschild, the two wines most experts agree are the greatest of our time. I had the opportunity to sample every vintage of both, but not the sense to do it.
And the same for brandy, for liqueurs. There was even a pretty fair collection of Scotch, perhaps even single malts.
So it is that when my grandchildren ask me what I was doing during the liberation of Paris I could proudly state, “Moving bottles.” I doubt that they’d stay around long enough to understand that it was really an integral part of our mission, medical supply. For us the war had not ended with the liberation of Paris.
For the French, however, at least in Paris, the war had ended while it was still going on. Even during the last air raid, they were out partying in the street. It couldn’t have been more than a day or two after we arrived at Porte de Pantin that a well-dressed local resident showed up at the gate in great excitement. He seemed important enough for someone to track me down to find out what he was talking about. It was a very important message indeed. He had just learned that an American company had moved into the depot, and he wanted to invite some of us to dinner. I accepted for three of us, including a sophisticated Bostonian named Ross Donaldson who later became a television editor for NEC. Our host invited two or three of his friends, and the halfdozen or so males, Americans in their twenties, French in their forties, had the meal of the century.
What did we have? I have absolutely no idea. Although I’m sure I wrote several pages on it in my letters home, all my lengthy and almost daily letters were destroyed after the war. I do remember that, on the basis of having shared a bottle of 1928 Graves at Antoine’s in the late Thirties, I stated an absolute preference for it. Sometimes the stupidest statement is the most appropriate one, for it put my host, already operating at a near-apolectical level of pleasure, into a frenzy. Down into his cellars he went, emerging out of the gloom with bottles dangling from the fingers of each hand. When I remarked on his hoard’s surviving the Occupation, he took us down into his caves to reveal his secret. Sure enough, the first level, mostly non-vintage bottles, had been raided by the Germans, as had the second, in which he had clumsily secreted a few wines of better quality.
Mais regardez! It was on the third level, and even the fourth, entrances to both of which were well disguised, that he had successfully kept his good stuff.
And he produced it that night. He brought up bottle after bottle of Graves from different vineyards and vintages, which he admitted to me could be considered le grandpère de tons les Sauternes, He also brought up bottles from other vineyards of Bordeaux, and more from vineyards of Burgundy, which he preferred, to demonstrate to me the infinite variety of the great wines of France, all compared to the standard of Graves. Everything had to be tasted and commented upon by each one of us, American and French alike, but while the others were going on to the next taste test, I had to give my own opinion and then translate each comment from the hosts for the guests, from the guests to our hosts. This required quite a bit of lubrication from the bottles in question. I’d been putting in 16-hour days for some time, and what with fatigue and a few barrels of Graves and its counterparts de Bourgogne, I checked out of the party fairly early. Ross told me the next day that long after I had slumped down in my seat with a satiated smile on my face, our host was reappearing with handfuls of dangling bottles.
The next day, around nine o’clock, after I’d been working a couple of bleary hours, he appeared again, the eager smile on his face. He wanted to do it all over again that night.
Shortly after we took over the depot we managed to hire a score or so of workers from the neighborhood. Generally in the American army, to the amazement of the Europeans who were used to even the lowest German non-commissioned officer doing nothing himself but shouting orders, noncoms like me worked along with everybody else, especially if we wanted to get anything accomplished. When I was still just an acting noncom, I was in charge of some make-work detail one morning. I was around the corner of a barracks from a group of my soldiers, and heard one of them say, “Why are we doing this crap, anyway? Let’s go back to the sack.” And another said, “Yeah, I know, but Boo’s doing it, too,” so they all kept working.
But with a pack of hungry Frenchmen to move things around—they were especially good at consolidating the pinard, that thick purple Algerian wine the French army lives on and of which we had tank cars full—I and the other Americans were just getting in their way. I began finding things to do in the neighborhood, sometimes even in the heart of Paris.
The City of Light, at least at the time, was a conglomeration of villages, and Pantin was one of them, a working-class neighborhood with people about like those anywhere. It had been occupied by the Germans one day, the Americans the next. The proprietor of the neighborhood bar ran the place personally, along with his wife and other relatives. I learned that he was both a Socialist and a spiritualist, which required vocabularies challenging even to someone who’d studied in Paris one year. However we finally got down to conversing fairly coherently—after all, I was the only one he had—and we explained ourselves to each other. The local people, himself included, were somewhat apprehensive at first, he said. They’d been under an iron heel for four years, and though life in the neighborhood went on under the Germans, there was always the fear of both the known and the unknown. It was known that the Germans would pick up Jews and other non-Aryans, like gypsies, say, and take them off to concentration camps and death. Members, real or suspected, of the Resistance were also subject to immediate arrest, even being beaten or shot on the spot, if they were caught. Such was life as could be expected in the Occupation. What was not juste was the tendency of the Germans to take revenge on the innocent members of the civilian population for the actions of individual French patriots. It was well known, for example, that anyone with an old well had one or more German soldiers in the bottom of it. What else would a sale boche expect if he happened to be out alone at night? Sometimes, however, the private execution of an individual enemy was done carelessly, and this might result in innocent people being rounded up and imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
When the Americans came, in spite of the popular belief that we were liberators, not conquerors, and the openhearted welcome afforded us in the euphoria that swept the city, no one could be absolutely sure that we, too, might be overly demanding. However, it didn’t take long for the people of Pantin, and by extension the entire city, to realize that we were all bans types— good guys. We gave the kids candy, we paid for what we drank, we didn’t rape the girls, we smiled.
In the 50 years since la liberation the reminiscences of a few hundred thousand red-blooded American soldiers have grown raunchier and raunchier. I like the story of the Fourth Division on the morning after. The GIs had pitched their individual tents in some park. When the bugler blew reveille, out of each tent came not only a soldier, but his touseled companion of the night. Paris being Paris, I have no doubt that perhaps some tents had double occupancy on that glorious occasion but all, many or even more than a few? Ask one of the veterans of the Fourth in a bar over a beer, in a locker room of the golf club, or in front of his wife and children, and compare the answers.
In the neighborhood cafe at Pantin, especially after the lights came on again, GIs and jeunes filles got together after working hours, with some heavy smooching in the dark corners. One couple consisted of one of our cooks who was not very bright and a young woman with her head wrapped in a turban. She was a tondue, a girl who’d had a German boyfriend and been chased out of town with her head shaved as a punishment. It was a match made in heaven, for he had a very pretty, if bald, girlfriend, and she had a place to sleep. Most soldiers, however, went home alone to the depot. Out of a hundred men, many of whom were married and ineligible, several married the maids of Pantin and, as far as I know, lived happily ever after. (The reason I don’t know is because the company had only one reunion, around 1948, attended by about a half-dozen enlisted men, and never got together again. In 50 years I’ve had one lunch with Ross Donaldson in New York, and one telephone conversation with Captain Keleman in Chicago. So much for wartime buddies.)
At least as far as Paris and Pantin were concerned, the people we saw made a smooth and rapid transition from Occupation to liberation to normalcy. The lights came on, the metro resumed fairly regular hours, the stores opened all day. The people remained appreciative of their liberators, but they no longer ran up to and kissed anyone with a GI uniform on, or invited him home to dinner or bed. When I first arrived in Paris, anyone who heard me say a word of French, or appear to understand a word of French, reacted openly. Many touched me in some way—a handshake, a kiss, just a pat on the shoulder—some others asked me about an American custom or piece of equipment, but almost everybody said some greeting with the word merci in it. As brown uniforms became more common on the streets, in the sidewalk cafes and in the stores, we seemed to become a part of the ambience and received less individual attention. But if ever I wanted anything at all, directions to someplace or some bit of information, I always got it in profusion and with a smile.
In describing the scene for the New Yorker at the time, A. J. Liebling commented that “It was hard for any American who speaks French to pay for a drink in a bar.” I’m sure that was true, but in my case unnecessary as I had a job to go to the next morning, and I had a warehouse full of better stuff anyway. Also, Liebling had studied in France for several years.
At the time nylons were almost unavailable at home. They were also, thanks to a custom set up by the Germans, unavailable to the French in Parisian stores. Yet there was never any resentment, any bitterness, when we GIs stocked up on them to send home. I remember one salesclerk in particular (she happened to be gorgeous), who suggested to me quietly that she had some nylons. There were no strings attached; we’d exchanged a few pleasant words in French and she just simply wanted me to have them.
Another priceless commodity was perfume. There had been a shortage of it during the Occupation, of course, like anything else, but now it suddenly appeared. At the time the magic words in perfume were Chanel No. 5. I gathered from the raised eyebrows of the salesgirls that it was not considered all that great in Paris, but they gave les américains what they wanted. Some self-styled experts said it didn’t smell like it used to, but I doubt if the American wives and girlfriends who received a bottle of it, along with a pair of nylons, cared about the scent as long as the label carried the magic appelation.
Running errands in Paris was not a bad detail, and I enjoyed life tremendously. Fifty years later, I get a warm glow of memory as I encounter little things like the smell of coffee and chicory (or Chanel No.5!), the taste of vermouth with a touch of cassis, the sound of an accordion playing the bouncy little Parisian rhythms. Yes, I knew that others were dying on battlefields around the world, but in war you grab what you can.
During my brief stay in Paris the army learned of my linguistic skills, reclassified me as a French interpreter in the Corps of Engineers, and sent me to Belgium in a boxcar for the Battle of the Bulge. The medical company spent only a few months in Paris. It may be that the time came in the military schedule to move on. Or it may be, as I heard later, that it fouled up to such an extent that its next assignment was in a gloomy town in Alsace called Foug, near Toul, where the only drink was quetsch, a clear corrosive made of plums. After that it was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, to prepare for the invasion of Japan. The war ended, and everybody went home instead. Yet what did not end—what still stands clear — is the memory of a city where in Liebling’s words, for one brief, shining moment, “everybody was happy.” And I, for one, will remember her that way.