- Historic Sites
The Liberation Of Paris
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
I was overwhelmed because love begets love, although my joy was tempered with a certain amount of shame, for I was young and healthy, had suffered little, and was here not as a liberator but as a witness.
It seemed days before we started moving away from this undeserved but delicious adulation. Then sniper fire broke out up ahead. The crowd melted away, and we were on our way again. My recollection now is that very little was said in the back of our sixby-six. Around any corner there might be Germans. The jokes could wait.
It must have been about noon when the GIs with whom I was riding reached their target area. I thanked them and jumped into the street—excited, scared, and elated. I was in Paris. Paris. Paris, France. I had not the slightest idea of where I had landed. Believing that Paris was not to be taken, I had spent no time studying maps of the city of which I had so often dreamed. The streets were empty save for an occasional youngster —the red, white, and blue Cross of Lorraine pinned to a sleeve, skirt, or beret—racing out from nowhere, firing a shot or two, and then retreating to safety. Usually I couldn’t make out at what or whom they were shooting.
Uncertain of where I was or where I should be going, I headed toward the loudest gunfire, toward what I now know was the Place de la Concorde. I believe the day was overcast, but it may just have been that a haze from firefights hung over much of the city. As I crept along the Rue de Rivoli, racing across the open spaces between its wide protective columns, I could see vases of fresh flowers across the street at the foot of the wall around the Tuileries—flowers, I would later learn, to those mort [or morte ] pour la patrie .
Finally I reached the famous Plaza of Peace. A monstrous German Tiger tank was parked ominously in the far corner of the Place. Whether it was out of commission—the victim of one of the many bottles of incendiary fluid hurled by the FFI—or was still ready for action, I did not know. What I saw was a band of screaming youngsters suddenly rush into the square—led by a girl surely still in her teens. She had short blonde hair and wore a white blouse and colored skirt with the FFI insignia pinned at its waist. In her hand was a small pistol. She swung her arm toward the tarfk and ran toward it, the mob of children at her heels. My attention was diverted for a moment by a loud explosion close behind me, and I jumped behind a column. When I looked back, there was a girl on top of the tank, firing her pistol into the open turret. I leaned against the column and, overcome, burst into tears.
Before the day was over, I was witness to another side of human nature. A long line of German prisoners, their hands clasped over their heads, was being marched down a street. The crowds lining the sidewalks jeered and spit and jumped into the street to pummel the prisoners with fists and feet and canes and handbags. All the while the young FFI officer escorting the prisoners was running up and down the column, exhorting his countrymen not to abuse the captives: “ Je leur ai donné ma parole! ” (“I gave them my word.”)
A shot rang out, and one of the Germans fell to the pavement, a bullet in his head. In the eyes of the witnesses I saw neither shame nor remorse, only hatred so intense that I was certain that this must be the wrath of God.
I began to wander, mostly in a daze. The city was a sea of red, white, and blue, the Stars and Stripes sharing the glorious moment with the Tricolor. (I remember wondering how the Parisians could have run up so many American flags in so short a time.)
In one of my wanderings I looked down a side street and froze. It wasn’t a Nazi ambush that immobilized me but rather an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, a scene from the French Revolution that I had seen dozens of times in history books: the barricades. They were so high I couldn’t see over them. I would find scores of them in the next few days.
As the afternoon went on, I was struck by the absence of vehicles. It wasn’t that the barricades were keeping them out. It was lack of gasoline. Only collaborators had it, and they were nowhere to be seen, though toward the end of the day I came across groups of women being paraded through the streets, their shaved heads proclaiming the German company that they had kept.
The next day General de Gaulle led the FFI in a triumphant march down the Champs-Elysées to Notre-Dame. Both sides of the boulevard were packed with Parisians waiting to hail the already legendary figure who had kept their hopes alive.
Waiting for the march to begin, I spotted in the grandstand a beautiful young blonde, her arm in a great white sling. It didn’t take too many minutes of pointing and waving to persuade her to come down and ride with me on the top of the jeep. The moment was captured by half the hundreds of cameramen who were covering the parade, for a wounded Parisian beauty with an American in uniform seemed to sum up the day. The picture was the front page of the Rome edition of Stars and Stripes the following morning.