How Papa Liberated Paris


By breakfast time we were already into Cernay la Ville. There Westover put the jeep around the main body of the armor, and we joined the advance guard as it marked time on a hillside beyond the village. Again we marched. Chevreuse was already behind us, and the advance guard, made up of a few jeeps and four halftracks, was approaching the airport at Toussus le Noble when we heard the artillery speak for the first time. It was a novel situation. The column stopped in a defile where the road twisted through and over a narrow valley steep-sided as a ravine. We could neither back away nor deploy. Off to our left we counted twenty-three muffled explosions. To me they seemed harmless.

I said: “They’re going out.”

Westover said: “Wrong, boss, they’re coming in. There’s something up ahead of us.”

And of course I knew he had to be right about it. For over forty years my hearing, though acute to most other sounds, has never been attuned to the pitch of an artillery shell. I’m tone deaf to explosions, though I don’t know why. Westover knew the sounds as a maestro knows his scale. He had been a forward observer in Italy before I got him. Even in his sleep his subconscious told him the difference between outgoing and incoming noise.

Behind us, at some distance, a few French guns countered perfunctorily. Then we lurched on. Nothing ahead had been reconnoitered, but when en avant is the watchword, prudence has no virtue. By the time the advance guard topped the rise we had company. The lead battalion, a motorized unit riding trucks and attended by armor, had closed the interval and was right on our heels. The one road cut straight through the center of the airport. The lead elements of the column were riding virtually bumper to bumper as we drove this causeway. We got midway. The passage was still a defile. On either side of us the fields, where they were not bomb-cratered, were an impassable morass. Either go ahead or stall—there was no other choice.

It was stall. But not by choice. From directly in front of us, on a beeline, and not more than 1,100 yards away, an artillery piece suddenly spoke German. The whizzbang effect said it was an eighty-eight. Then ditto, ditto, ditto. Our little tinclad van was rolling directly into the teeth of an enemy battery. From somewhere to the right of the battery a 105 millimeter also opened fire; so, from its left, did a heavy machine gun.

These latter items were small change. But the fire from the eighty-eights was a fast strike down the middle. The truck three lengths ahead of us was hit dead on. Then a jeep thirty paces to the rear got smacked.

I immediately jumped to the slope of a drainage ditch which paralleled the road. Being more agile, Westover had vaulted it and was in a bomb crater beyond. As for the major from the U.S. Fifth Corps, he had jackknifed beautifully straight into the muck of the ditch bottom. He arose looking like a refugee from a sewer. He said: “I’ve been thinking it over. It was wrong of me to come along. I must return to my duty.” He turned his jeep around and somehow managed to swing out past the armor. We never saw him again.

No one has ever managed to diagnose the emotions of fish in a barrel. It could have been that bad, for the shelling continued. But the German battery was getting nervous. Its stuff began going wild. Westover was much more comfortable in his bomb crater than was I, flattened on the bank of the roadside ditch. Since the battery was aiming straight down the road and the ditch ran parallel to it, clear to the guns, its bank offered only relative mental peace.

Forward along the road 150 yards, and that much closer to the battery, was a ruined building, partly wrecked by earlier air bombings and now smoking from a hit. But its stone walls still stood, and beckoned. There lay sanctuary from the spite of the enemy, and even more from his noise. So I yelled to Westover: “See that building! That’s where we’re going. Get moving!”

Nothing in life is stranger than the way in which a new association of ideas may quite suddenly change one’s emotions toward a particular object, thought, or strain of music and fix them steadfastly for all time. Until the war I had abominated Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”

Not knowing it, I was at the point of change as we drew near the wrecked building. Its immediate setting and some brightness in the décor suggested that it had been a café. One shell from the battery had knocked the sign from above the door some minutes earlier. We turned it over. It said “Clair de Lune.” In the years since, I have loved this piece of music steadily and passionately. Had we not turned over the sign and read it, my feelings would be as before. But there was a charmed hour within the strong walls of that old café, though why those moments were high I cannot say, except that they were sweet and friendly and became the portal to a delirious adventure.