- 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
They had waited four years for this parade, and they were ready with the vin d’honneur and much more. There were again the Old Guard standing at salute, wearing faded kepis and fresh-shined medals, young mothers rushing out with infants to be kissed, more beautiful blondes and brunettes, and some not so lovely, platoons of urchins screaming and frantically raising their hands in the V-signal, dear old gammers showing their petticoats when they raised their skirts to weep, and everywhere, men and women, shouting, laughing, crying, embracing in ecstatic delirium.
It was about then that Westover pulled a folded star-spangled flag from his pack, mounted it on a puptent pole and gave it to Elena to hold high. That small gesture of pure patriotism was the great mistake. Right then the unattached females along the march route began climbing into Leclerc’s tanks and half-tracks to stay. Elena had challenged them. It was time to strike a blow for France. And they didn’t have any flags.
There was no way to refuse that mass of mad humanity. So there were countless stops and starts by the column. Repeatedly, the people surged onto the avenue and stood solid until the armor ground to a halt. But when they rushed the vehicles, it was not to pour champagne, cognac, and Calvados. They dumped the bottles whole, the champagne chilled, the hard stuff still uncorked. When the jeep at last reached the bank of the Seine it was carrying, like coals to Newcastle, sixty-seven bottles of champagne on a run into Paris. We gave it back to other Frenchmen. As I said, everyone was a little cuckoo.
Papa Hemingway was still with us, and very busy, not instructing the F.F.I. scouts, advising Leclerc, or bending the elbow. Like a happy tourist, he was snapping pictures of everyone and anything in sight.
That night we bivouacked on the broad avenue, one hundred yards short of the Pont de Sèvres, directly across the Seine from the Renault plant. From the Longchamps race track, the German artillery tried to bring the column under fire, but the closest shells hit high on the ridge running off in the direction of Versailles. Through the night our tank destroyers returned the fire from positions along the river bank.
All morning long the column chewed its nails, but we couldn’t cross the bridge before we came to it. The generals behaved like union men honoring the noon whistle. At exactly 1200, 25 August, A.D. 1944, we cranked up and rolled across the Seine at Pont de Sèvres. But for occasional out-of-bounds rounds plunked into the rollicking scenery by the German batteries at the Longchamps course, there was nothing to remind us that the advance was a military action and not a pictorial parade into pandemonium.
Scouts and heralds, with trumpets and dodgers, must have been sent forward to muster the crowd. For Paris was already alerted to the entry and had cast off its chains, though formally the Germans still held the city. For the first mile or so of march, there was repeated the wild, high carnival of the prior afternoon, except that the crush had thickened and was less controllable. In our jeep we gulped and we wept. Elena had lofted the American flag and the sight of that banner, more than all else, stirred the beholders to the highest pitch of ecstasy. Again, the mothers came running with babies to be kissed, the aging ex-poilus stood at salute, the little boys screamed for cigarettes, and the champagne donors rushed the vehicles. But the Paris mob was a little different, better prepared, more sophisticated. Skirts were shorter and hair-dos more conspicuous. Photographers and autograph hunters pressed in close.
Place St. Cloud is the first roundabout beyond the Sèvres bridge. As the jeep turned into its spacious circle, suddenly the column stopped dead. We could not see why. The clamor had ceased. The central garden of the circle was utterly deserted as was its outer rim, which is built up solid with apartment houses. That one moment was pregnant with silence, made more awesome because there was no explaining it.
Then two things happened right together. A volley of rifle fire erupted directly behind us and an artillery shell out of nowhere struck and felled a chestnut tree on the parkway, so that it fell as a screen between the jeep and the nearest apartment building, thirty yards to our right. In those few seconds while the tree was settling, the tanks and cars ahead of us became emptied of their people (including Hemingway) as they ran for the buildings on the far side of the circle. Such was the effect of the surprise fire. We couldn’t follow the stampede. All of the rifle fire was coming from the building just back of the jeep and the fallen tree. Westover crawled to one end of the tree so that he could cover the windows with his carbine. Elena stayed in the center. My part of it was to watch the other end lest someone from the lower story (which we couldn’t see because of the tree) should try to push through the foliage.