- Historic Sites
How Papa Liberated Paris
An eyewitness re-creates the wonderful, wacky day in August, 1944, when Hemingway, a handful of Americans, and a senorita named Elena helped rekindle the City of Light. Champagne ran in rivers, and the squeals inside the tanks were not from grit in the bogie wheels
April 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 3
During this and the succeeding scenes, our great and gentle friend, Papa, was close beside us, right to the finish. Blessed be his memory, and hallowed his reputation for fighting gumption; they should not be sullied with canards like this one from an American magazine:
Behind Papa’s jeep wheezed the long line of Renault sedans, taxis, jalopies and trucks, all of them crammed with Task Force Hemingway fighters, now numbering more than 200. “We’ll tag along with Leclerc as far as Buc,” Papa said, “then near Versailles where our information shows we will be slowed down by resistance, we’ll swing around and come into Paris by a back road one of our bike boys found. The chief of staff didn’t think the road was quick enough, but I do.” Just as Hemingway anticipated, Leclerc was temporarily pinned down along the south bank of the Seine by a small group of determined Nazis left behind by the retreating Germans. When Leclerc finally overwhelmed the resistance, his advance patrols moved into Paris. The Germans had deserted the city. As Leclerc entered he noticed a large sign hanging from the door of a cathedral: “Property of Ernest Hemingway.”
Well, glory and hallelujah. Papa stayed with us, then and later, never breaking away toward Versailles. His only attachment was Sergeant Red Pelkey, his jeep driver. Leclerc’s boys acted like nitwits, but if they were slowed anywhere by resistance, it came from the mademoiselles, not the krauts. Papa deserves more credit than he has been given; he was not one to force his talents beyond their natural limits.
Our final lurch, after the column had swung past Orly Field and then, turning leftward, entered the solidly built-up area south of the Seine, took twenty-four hours.
Through the whole ride, we were as perverse as possible. We tore madly along when reason whispered that we should proceed with care. We stalled insensibly whenever the way seemed wide open. It was less a fighting operation than a carnival on wheels. Take what happened after the German battery, concealed in the copse just off our flank, ripped the column broadside. Rather quickly, tank fire killed that battery. The jeep had pulled up between two medium tanks. In the shuffling which attended the exchange of fires, the tank behind us moved forward a few yards. It became impossible to turn. Then both tanks resumed the advance, and we went along between them willy-nilly rather than be run down. This proved embarrassing. In one-half mile our route turned left, at which point we headed straight toward the Seine.
Right at the junction, with the closest piled explosives only twenty feet from the road we must take, was a block-long German ammunition dump. The stacked shells were already blowing sky-high, and even at a distance, the smoke, blast, and flame seemed like an inferno. For that, we could thank the killed-off German battery. With a final round or two it had fired the dump just before being knocked out of action. So doing, it had blocked the road, or at least that was what we supposed for the moment.
The lead tanks came to the intersection. There was not even a pause for a close-up view of the danger. They wheeled left and advanced in file right across the face of the exploding dump. Its metal showered the roadway and its heat was like a blast from molten slag.
For the people within the tanks the risks were trivial. They had battened their hatches, and the plate was thick enough to withstand the hot fragments. They did not take it on the run as they should have done; they snailed along at about six miles per hour.
I yelled: “We can’t make that run.”
Westover yelled: “We’ve got to, or the tanks will crush us. They’re not stopping for anything.”
That’s how it was. The jeep-loaded people spliced into the tank column were held feet-to-the-fire by their own friends. That Mazeppa-like ride lasted not more than forty or fifty seconds by the clock, but the clock lied. There was no protection against either the flying metal or the infernal heat. The best one could do was cover his face with his arms, double up so as to compose as small a target as possible, and hope for the best.
We pulled out of it whole-skinned. One shard had smashed through the hood of the jeep. Another had smacked the metal panel next the jump seat, missing Elena’s bottom by inches. The quarter-ton still perked. It was hellishly hot, and we were horribly thirsty.
There was not far to go. Where the dump ended, the metropolitan city began. In a twinkling, we were among houses and stores, and banking both sides of that broad, lovely avenue were the people—and what a peoplel