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.
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.
My moment of glory was to be short-lived. The parade had just started when sniper fire from Frenchmen sympathetic to the Nazis rained down from several rooftops. I grabbed Jacqueline by her good arm and raced for the safety of the nearest building, there to huddle with dozens of frightened French men and women. They kept staring at me, wondering why I didn’t grab my pistol and go after the snipers, ô la Beau Geste. My French wasn’t good enough to explain that correspondents are forbidden to carry firearms.
I would learn a lot about the German occupation over the next few days. One day Jacqueline was late for lunch. She explained that she had been at the trial of a collaborator. A trial? I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “and convicted him and shot him.”
I was horrified. “Isn’t that just what the Nazis would have done?” I demanded.
She shrugged and blew a puff of air through puckered lips—the classic French sneer. “You Americans! For a while I hid a young Jew. They caught him eventually. He could have told you what it was like—if he had lived. If we don’t take care of the collaborators ourselves, by the time you Americans get around to trying them, they’ll have gotten off. You have no idea how to deal with the Nazis and their friends.”
Perhaps, I have thought over the years, the Parisians did. I remember the night of August 25 as a kaleidoscope of joy, with wine and flowers and the most beautiful girls I had ever seen—or so it seemed at that moment—flinging their arms around me and kissing me passionately. Paris sang and danced and cried in the streets. I have a sense that lights were turned on, but that may be because it would have been poetic for it to have happened.
By the time this incredible day ended, Paris was once again the City of Light.