- 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
He was very sad. I wanted to console him. I said: “You see, old chap, we have in our country a purifying process. Our troops can’t drink milk unless it is pasteurized.”
At that point, he fairly wailed: “Why didn’t they tell me? Pasteur was my grandfather. And you tell me how to purify milk?”
So naturally, we rolled on away from there. And we had no way of knowing that before this show was over, we would have to conclude that the great scientist had sired quite a tribe of Frenchmen.
At high noon we came to Rambouillet. We raced through without pausing for lunch or gas. In fact, we hadn’t even noted the name. Six or seven miles past that fair city lies a small village named Buc. We got within one-quarter mile of it. We approached a wooded hill around which the road twists into the village.
I yelled to Westover: “Stop the jeep!”
He braked, then yelled back: “What’s the matter, got the wind up?”
I said: “You’re damned right. Did you ever hear anything as silent as this? Not a sound, anywhere along the road. And there isn’t any wire laid along the road. Turn around and barrel. We’re in enemy country.”
That was what we did. Two miles to our rear, we bumped into a battalion of French armor setting up a roadblock at a main intersection. I asked the commander: “Why are you going into position here?”
He said: “This is the front.”
I asked: “Why don’t you go on to Buc? There’s a nice wooded hill just this side of it from where you can cover a spread of country.”
He said: “That’s the point. There are fifteen Tiger tanks on that hill part way dug in. We have spotted them from the air. But why fight them if you can turn them? I don’t think we’ll take that road to Paris. Nobody goes to Buc.”
I said: “We went to Buc—or almost.”
While we still talked to the roadblock crew, a jeep, mad with power, came racing into the crossroads from the direction of Versailles. In it were two French civilians and a man in green twill who identified himself as a colonel of the O.S.S. named Williams.
Williams said: “Howdy.”
They had come from a rendezvous outside Paris in St. Cloud with a group of Maquis who led the Paris resistance. Williams recounted the conversations and got finally to the raw meat: “It’s all wrong about the city being liberated. This morning another five thousand S.S. arrived and joined the garrison. They intend to fight for it.”
So this wasn’t quite the afternoon for jumping a jeep across the Seine. One illusion had gone bang, though faith in the report of an American air drop near Paris still persisted.
Westover and I doubled back to Rambouillet with the idea of getting a cold bottle and vittles while pondering what to do next. On the edge of town we saw a Fighting French motor park and turned in with the sole object of putting the jeep under guard while we engaged a beer or two. It proved to be the headquarters of the French and Armored Division, which had beat us to Rambouillet by an hour or so. We learned this when a colonel braced me and introduced himself as General Leclerc’s G-2.
He asked: “Where have you come from?”
Stretching things a bit, I said: “From Buc.”
“Impossible!” he replied. “No one has been to Buc.” So then I told him all that I had heard from his own people and ours—the presence of the enemy tanks at Buc, the position of his roadblock, the news given by Williams that Paris was far from liberated.
The colonel’s eye gleamed. He said: “I must take you to Leclerc. You must tell him all. This is major intelligence.”
Thus dragooned, we met Leclerc, who even inside his fly-ridden tent looked and acted like a miniature Mars. Of this dedicated and courageous fighter for France, untimely killed by a peacetime air crash in the Sahara, many hands have written, and my experiences with him were so brief as to add nothing worthwhile.
What stays in my memory is as vague as the impression of a chessy cat minus the grin. The figure was trim and dressed as if for a skirmish. The face was abnormally pink, the eyes steely cold, and the mustache clipped close to vanishing. While I talked he stood rigid, not even flexing a face muscle. Well, no, that is not quite correct.
As I reached the point of saying, “and according to Williams there are five thousand newly arrived S.S. in the city who will fight for it,” for the first time Leclerc relaxed.