How Papa Liberated Paris

PrintPrintEmailEmailThen there is another thing—like a sweet dream, yesterday’s rose, or last month’s pay, the event was gone before one could grasp it. From first to last it was as fantastic as Uncle Tom done by the late Cecil B. De Mille. …

When the smoke cleared that night, nine of us dined at the Hotel Ritz. Officially, we were the only uniformed Americans in Paris. That knowledge made us more giddy than did the flow of champagne. There was food fit for the gods and service beyond price. But the headwaiter made one ghastly blunder.

He slapped a Vichy tax on the bill. Straightaway we arose as one man and told him: “Millions to defend France, thousands to honor your fare, but not one sou in tribute to Vichy.”

He retired in confusion, crying: “It’s the law!” and clutching a $100 tip. It was our finest and final victory of the evening. Then we did a round-robin signing of menu cards for the benefit of posterity. Among my souvenirs is the paper bearing the signatures of Colonel David K. E. Bruce, Brigadier General Edwin L. Sibert, Ernest Hemingway, Commander Lester Armour, U.S.N.R., G. W. Graveson, Captain Paul F. Sapiebra, Captain John G. Westover, and J. F. Haskell. Above the signatures is the caption: “We think we took Paris.” The date was August 25, 1944.

But we agreed on something else. Hemingway said it: “None of us will ever write a line about these last twenty-four hours in delirium. Whoever tries it is a chump.” Ou that pledge, we solemnly shook hands, raised our glasses, broke up, and redeployed.

Still, there had been a few touches which kept the show earthbound, encouraging the thought that we were not sleepwalking. For our column, the advance ended at the top of Avenue Foch in midafternoon. By then Paris was almost as free of gunfire as a modern July 4 picnic. So I walked on a hundred yards to get a front view of the Arc. At least six thousand cheering Parisians thronged the Étoile.

As I gazed upward, one last tank shell, out of nowhere, hit the outer edge of the stone pillar fifteen feet up. Of the effect on the crowd, there was no chance to judge. The square was absolutely empty before the echo died; the human tide simply evaporated. Not even a gendarme remained to guard the Eternal Flame below the Arc.

Then I looked down the Champs hoping for a sign in keeping with the splendor of the hour. It was there, all right, a great canvas ten feet deep, moored to the top stories of the buildings that faced the Arc and dominating the broad avenue. It read: “Hart, Schaffner & Marx Welcomes You,” the final blessing on a great day. Next morning’s promise was even brighter. By then a French AA gunner, from a battery which had set up next the Arc, had shot the sign down.

As all who visit Paris know, the Etoile is its bullseye. The great avenues radiate from it like spokes from a wheel hub. And the last street, as one approaches the Arc, Rue de Presbourg, makes a circle around the Étoile.

Toward the freeing of Paris, our final burst of sound and fury occurred along this roundabout. Save for cheering and the popping of champagne corks, the end of the drive along Avenue Foch had been quiet. Arriving at the circular street, the head of the column split, and the French armor and half-tracks deployed around it in both directions in a pincers movement perfectly designed to envelop the Unknown Soldier, had there been any resistance around him. Curious about the next move, I parked the jeep in front of No. 1 Avenue Foch and walked forward.

That was a mistake. Before I had passed two doors on Presbourg, the street was swept in both directions with automatic and cannon fire. The scars from that blast are still to be seen on the Presbourg walls. Some of it was random shooting aimed at nothing in particular. But several of the vehicles plainly were concentrating their fire on an apartment building opposite No. 1 Avenue Foch.

There was nothing to do but sink back into the nearest window embrasure, suck in my guts, and hope for the best. Through the shot and shell came the Girl from Bilbao who figures in this story. She carried a carbine. She said: “I saw the weapon and knew that either you or John were unarmed. So I came looking.” What a woman! I pulled her up into the embrasure, and we stood there perfectly helpless.

This mad shooting went on for thirteen minutes. When it died, Paris began the return to normal. I went looking for the French major commanding the forward tanks, simply to ask him: “What in hell are you doing?” He said: “We’re tranquilizing that enemy-held building.”

I asked: “What enemy?”

His reply was positively fierce: “It is defended by the Japanese. We saw them at the window.”

No answer was possible. It would have been as pointless to tell him that he was nutty as to accuse his troops of shooting up Paris real estate to enjoy an illusion of valor. But there was some argument for quitting his battalion at that moment and sitting on the curb.