The Liberation Of Paris

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I am told that many people have difficulty in deciding the most exciting moment in their lives. Not I. For me it was August 25, 1944—the day of the liberation of Paris half a century ago. I was there as a war correspondent courtesy of the American 4th Infantry Division.

To appreciate the mystique of Paris, I think you had to have been born in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Thomas Appleton said that “when they’re dead, good Americans go to Paris,” and in those distant days the only way most of us could get there alive was to dream.

So I dreamed. And on June 14, 1940, my dreams ended as Nazi storm troopers goose-stepped into the City of Light. And the Light went out. For the next four years, two months, and ten days Paris remained dark—physically, emotionally, and for most of that time morally. Its liberation was not one of the objectives for which the Allied armies stormed ashore on the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944; and early in August the Allies decided to go around the city, thereby forcing the encircled Germans to pull out or be caught in a trap. In the end it didn’t happen that way because the citizens of Paris took the decision into their own hands.

They had had enough.

An estimated 120,000 Parisians had been tortured and killed by the Nazis, and on August 18 the Wehrmacht command in Paris issued new orders: Curfew would run between 9:00 P.M. and 7:00 A.M. All windows were to be shut at all times. If any civilians disobeyed, the German soldiers had orders to use their weapons without warning. In reaction the National Council of the Resistance called for a general insurrection. The Paris police seized the prefecture opposite Notre-Dame in the very heart of the city. For nearly a week, until the Allies arrived, it would be the center of resistance.

Barricades were enthusiastically thrown up in many places by the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI). The fighting spread on the streets, and at length Gen. Omar Bradley, under strong pressure from Gen. Charles de Gaulle, changed plans: “Take Paris!”

The assault was to begin from the forest of Rambouillet, some thirty miles southwest of the capital. The honor of entering Paris first would go to the famous Deuxième Division Blindée, which had marched fifteen hundred miles across the Sahara from Chad to join the Free French forces in North Africa.

For reasons of no importance whatsoever, the two newsmen with whom I was traveling and I were among the last of the hundreds of correspondents from all the Allied nations to reach Rambouillet.

The forest was alive with rumors:

We had been scooped. One correspondent had already slipped into the city. (False.)

There were already troops in the city. (True.) Gen. Philippe Leclerc’s advance units had entered shortly after 9:30 P.M. , and even small units of the 4th Infantry Division might have arrived. It is a large city.

The advance was being held up pending the removal of mines. (Possible.) “General” Ernest Hemingway, believing the Nazis would try to protect Paris by marching to Rambouillet, had rounded up a small “army” of peasants and ordered them to mine the road. It wasn’t his only action that day. Several in the 4th remember Papa, among them M. Sgt. Robert Stenberg, Headquarters Company, 8th Infantry: “I was on patrol with Hemingway and could have killed him because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut and he talked very loud.”

Rumors notwithstanding, it was certain that my colleagues and I had better set out for Paris immediately or we would end up as the last people to reach the war’s most glamorous story. So sometime just before dawn on Friday, August 25, we climbed back into the jeep and said to our driver, “To Paris, James!” A thick fog blanketed the area, but eventually we found ourselves driving alongside the 4th.

Finally we three correspondents caught up with the covey of jeeps that was leading the motorized column. My colleagues couldn’t wait to transfer to them. Not I. I lead the American troops into Paris? Hell, no. There were Germans in there—lots of Germans. Armed Germans. And I rationalized that dead correspondents scoop no one. So I waited until several truckloads of the 4th rolled past, putting a buffer between me and the Nazis. Then—and only then—did I jump into one of the six-by-sixes.

Somewhere over the years I have lost whatever notes I took on that wonderful day, but the sensation that I re-experience in the pit of my stomach whenever I think back instructs me that I was scared—and thrilled. I was en route to that city—to Paris!

As we reached the outskirts of the city, in the area of the Porte d’Orléans, we became aware of a strange noise somewhere ahead of us. A low murmur at first, it gathered momentum and built into a gigantic roar of hysterical joy. It was as if in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the World Series, Babe Ruth had smashed the winning homer over the centerfield wall in Yankee Stadium. Only it was louder and wilder, hurled from all directions, echoing off buildings, rattling windows, deafening eardrums. And then there burst upon us a wall of humanity—I remember its being mostly female and young—yelling, screaming, waving, cheering, clambering up the sides of the trucks, kissing us, pressing flowers and wine on us.