How Papa Liberated Paris

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Mouton grunted, belched, and pointed left. We took it to mean that we were to prowl outward through the ruined hangars toward the German machine gun to see if it was still chattering. By then we were all feeling hardy as lions. Hemingway said: “If we get in any trouble, I will take care of you,” which gave Westover such a giggle that he almost split his Silver Star ribbon. Such cracks were a habit with Ernest, due to his owning the copyright on war. There were other reasons why he was called Papa, but this one was good enough.

Because of the slough, the knocked-over hangars, and the wreckage of two B-29’s, we didn’t get very far very fast, and finally the way was blocked wholly. It was then that Hemingway said: “I think we ought to patrol all the way if you’re up to it.” Mouton grunted. Again Westover laughed. Together, we shagged back to Clair de Lune; there was no further mention of patrolling.

It was all so like Papa. He would still have tried to amble forward had anyone picked up his idea; that he might have been shot for his pains was immaterial. He loved soldiering, with reservations. Being in an armed camp exhilarated him, and he had a natural way with the military. The excitement and danger of battle were his meat and drink, just as the unremitting obligation to carry on was his poison.

To put it more accurately, he loved playing soldier on the grand scale, with shooting irons. Yet in him, it was not a juvenile attitude. I truly believe he played at it more because he enjoyed the game than because he was interested in studying men under high pressure. There was this difference in view between us: I have always looked at war as a matter-of-fact business, requiring the rejection of every unnecessary risk and the facing of any danger along the path of duty; a man fully aware of his genius can afford more than that.

There was sudden motion at the front of the column. No signal came to us at the wrecked café, but somehow we sensed that we were about to move again.

Hemingway said: “What about the girl?”

“Well, what about her?”

He said: “She can’t be left here. The countryside remains in German hands. The column is only mopping up a highway. Leave her here, and she may be killed or captured.”

That was how we came to welcome Elena aboard the jeep and why it happened that a Spanish girl held high the first American flag that went into Paris.

The column was still in a defile, made so by the quagmire on both sides of the road, where once had been an airfield. In the van of the column were jeeps and trucks. Perhaps five hundred yards forward of the first vehicle, the earth flanking the road became solid. There we could fan out and deploy in line. The German battery was still firing feebly, and with the occasional rounds from the eighty-eights was mixed supporting stuff from an automatic gun and a few rifles.

Out of this unique situation came the weirdest order of attack that I have ever seen in any military operation. We advanced with jeeps in line first, followed by trucks in line, followed by half-tracks, followed by tanks. In the circumstances there was no other way to thin out the formation. Then, as the unarmored vehicles began to spread over the open fields, the half-tracks and tanks, gripping on solid ground, would swing out and around, pinching in toward the battery from both sides.

That is how it was done, and looking back now, I would say that had any safer, saner movement been possible, it would not have suited the hilarious nature of that thoroughly madcap adventure.

From where we rode, the prospect could be faced cheerfully. We were the next to the last jeep with the advance guard. The road ahead, at the point where the jeeps ahead of us would begin to spread out to either side, was shaded by a straight line of Lombardy poplars all the way to the battery and slightly inside of it. So when the other jeeps deployed, we could hold the road and hug the line of the trees. It was a very satisfactory bumper guard now that the battery was dying.

Silly as it sounds, the thing went off well. We were within five hundred yards of the guns when the finish came. The tanks and half-tracks completed their sweep, firing like crazy. No white flag was waved. No shout was heard. Suddenly we saw twenty or thirty Germans come out of that nest and stagger across the open field toward us, hands in air. Only one man couldn’t, because one hand and the other arm had been shot away. Still, he reeled along. Others were bleeding from the chest, head, shoulder, and legs. These things we saw as we drew abreast of them.

But no one minded or paid the slightest heed. They were walking past us into nothingness, and we were again back to the road with everyone straining toward Paris. Some must have continued this march macabre until they perished from bleeding. I have seen no uglier sight in combat than this.

French Without Tears