Wednesday, January 5, 2022

July 1944: Arthur meets his first American

This is probably THE most important story I heard growing up. It was so important to my grandfather, that 44 years later, he wrote and delivered a speech about this experience to a bunch of his engineering colleagues.

Like many (all?) immigrants, my grandparents immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. They came here in 1947, when they were in their mid-to-late 30s, coming citizens in the early 1950s, and lived out the rest of their lives here, dying in 1996 and 2000. They lived here FAR longer than the other three countries they lived in put together.

They had tried to go to America before the war - my great uncle begged them to come over before the war started, and they always regretted not listening to him and traveling here when they had the chance (they were happy in Belgium is a big reason). But there were a few things that really cemented their desire to come here. This is one of them.  






Arthur meets his first American

    Jeanne brought the Planas company some interesting news. “There’s an American commando parachuting in to the area. A big group this time. Maybe 10 or 15 of them.” There was a spark of excitement in her eyes.

    “Do we know where?” Captain Planas asked.
    “No. Just that they are being dropped in this area.”
    “Puppy, Biscuit, you and you and you—“ Captain Planas pointed at the men until there were twelve chosen, “Please try to find them and make contact. Help them get to safety.”

    Arthur and the team left at ten o’clock that night. He carried the Sten, and had a couple of grenades in his pockets — regular ones this time, not plastique — and because he didn’t know how long he’d be gone, he’d packed a little food and a canteen in his knapsack. Puppy had a map, and it was clear to Arthur he was having trouble navigating. It was cloudy, and they didn’t have the stars for direction.
    “A compass would help,” Arthur suggested to Puppy. “I could get one.”
    “Yes, go fetch one. Then rejoin us. We’ll wait here, unless we have to move for safety.”

    They must have encountered a German patrol, because the men weren’t there when he returned, and he couldn’t find them. Not knowing what else to do, he decided to continue searching for the Americans without a map.

    He hiked from valley to valley, from high pass to high pass, looking for parachutes drifting down, but saw none. A vague, almost primeval orientation instinct guided him from valley to hill, around cliffs, or across streams.

    He occasionally (cautiously) approached strangers and asked if they’d seen any Americans around. Sometime during the night, he found a small, poor house in a valley. He knocked at the door, waking an old man who lived there alone.
    “Have there been any Americans around?” Arthur asked him.
    “Americans? Here?” the old man rasped.
    “Yes. They parachuted in. Ten or 15 of them.”
    “Why would Americans be here of all places?” he asked, clearly disbelieving. “I know nothing of any Americans. But there have been Germans around many times, as recently as last evening.”

    So Arthur kept going, splashing across streams and crossing forests, always listening and heard only the drone of insects and the now-normal sound of distant gunfire. It was cloudy, but there was a bright moon behind the clouds, so he could see well enough. He kept to fields and woods, and avoided roads, not wishing to encounter German patrols alone.

    Finally, not long before dawn, he started across a high pasture, noticing there were goats and sheep grazing. He made his way among the animals, but they mostly ignored him. One goat looked up from the scrub it was munching and started following along.
    Arthur reached down and scratched around the animals horns, and it closed its eyes in enjoyment, leaning into him slightly as a dog would. Arthur smiled at the animal, and wished Liliane was there to see it.
    “I see William has found a friend,” someone said from behind him.
    Arthur jumped and jerked around, bringing the Sten up.
    A shepherd stood there. “I mean you no harm,” he said.
    Arthur studied the man. It was too warm for the furry sheepskin coats shepherds wore in cooler weather, but he wore dark pants and a baggy shirt with cuffs, and a black beret. Arthur remembered hearing from someone that berets were developed by shepherds who figured that if wool worked to keep the animals warm in winter and cool in summer that it would work for people too. Now many people wore them, including most members of the Maquis.
    The man was carrying three sturdy poles. Two were perhaps 1.5 meters and had small protrusions on them with straps attached above the protrusions. The third looked like a cane of some sort, but it was more than two meters tall. Arthur realized the two shorter ones were stilts, and the cane allowed him to make a tripod when he was up on the stilts.
    The shepherd noticed Arthur looking at the stilts. “I’m from Landes.”
    Arthur was bewildered. “So?” he asked as politely as he could.
    The man chuckled. “I see you’ve never been to southwestern France It’s an old tradition there for shepherds to walk on stilts. Gives us a good view of our animals. And walking on them is fast. It’s not so useful here, but I like to practice sometimes.”
    Arthur realized the stride length would be enormous, and that yes, it would indeed be a very fast way to get around. He shook himself. “Have you seen some Americans here?” Arthur asked.
    “No, but five minutes ago, I saw some Germans.”
    “Which way did they go?”
    The shepherd pointed.
    Arthur thanked the man, and headed in a different direction.

    Finally, he found anther FFI encampment. He cautiously approached, and immediately he felt someone press the barrel of a gun into the back of his neck.
    “Halt. Turn slowly. Keep your gun pointed down.”
    Arthur turned, and he and the man recognized each other. The maquisard lowered his weapon. His patrol had stopped Arthur a week earlier.
    “Biscuit, right?”
    Arthur nodded. “I’m looking for an American commando unit. Maybe 15 men. Have you seen them? I’m supposed to talk to their commanding officer.”
    The man pointed across the camp, to a group of men in American uniforms. He counted twelve of them laying in the grass sleeping. “You’ll have to wait. He’s sleeping.”
    A thirteenth American was awake and a little distance away from the others, and he was busy with a huge and heavy trunk-like box. Arthur guessed it was about 1.75 meters by 1.25 meters by 1.25 meters.
    Arthur approached him. “What is that?” he asked in English.
    “A radio transmitter,” the man answered, in a strange accent that Arthur struggled to understand. The American was young and tall, and handsome enough that if Mrs. Auvergne were still alive, she’d flirt with him outrageously.
    “A radio transmitter? It is so big.”
    “Yes,” the man said, pride in evident in his voice. “It’s very powerful. I can talk to the Pentagon.”
    “The pentagon?” Arthur was puzzled why he spoke of a shape.
    “U.S. Military headquarters, near Washington D.C. The building is shaped like a pentagon, so that’s what we call it.”
    Arthur wondered if the man had a Tommy gun. They were supposed to be much better than the Stens. “Please, may I see your Thompson submachine gun? I’ve heard they are very good, but have never seen one.”
    The man shook his head, a strange smile on his face. “I don’t have one. In fact, I don’t carry any weapons at all.”
    Arthur could hardly grasp what he was saying. Was the man really unarmed? “You parachuted behind enemy lines in mountains infested with Germans without any weapons? Did I understand you properly?”
    “Yes, sir,” he said. “I am a conscientious objector.”
    “Why? I mean, what does that mean?”
    “It means my religion forbids me from carrying weapons. I will not take a life.”
    “But …” Arthur had to stop and think of the expletive in English, “…hell, what are you doing here, beyond the enemy lines, without weapons? Your odds of survival are very, very slim.”
    The American shrugged. “I volunteered, and I learned to jump out of airplanes with a parachute and became a radio operator, to prove once and for all, that I am as patriotic as any other American, that I refuse to carry weapons due to my religious beliefs, and not cowardice.”
    “You are no coward.” Arthur told him. “A little crazy, perhaps.”
    The man laughed. “Yeah, maybe I am.”

    The young American seemed so strange, so courageous, so … moral.
    Arthur realized two things; the first was that he admired this young man very much, how he followed his conscience even during during the ugliness of war, and the second was that he was very impressed with America, for accommodating the religious beliefs of its soldiers. In Belgium and also in France, the freedom of the individual to think, believe and even to say whatever they want was venerated, but that freedom had completely disappeared in wartime, and not just because of the Nazis. If what the man said was true, the American government respected a man’s religious beliefs, even in wartime.
    He extended his hand to this very first American he’d ever spoken to. “It is very nice meeting you. May you arrive home safely.” The man shook his hand, and thanked him.
    Arthur paused, wondering how much to say, then said, “My wife’s brother lives in America. We hope to go there after the war. We tried to go to the U.S.A in 1941, but got stuck in France and then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and it is impossible after that.”
    “Well, may God help you to reach my country safely. I think you’ll like it there, very much.”


    He left the FFI encampment and headed back to his own company in the Ourches valley, thinking about the man he’d met. It was still a little hard to believe that the American military allowed soldiers to not carry weapons, that they may simply choose to not take a life. That was about as far as one could get from the Nazis, who thought nothing of killing people for their religion. He decided that murdering millions of people due to their religion or race couldn’t happen in America. Perhaps he and Roma really could raise their daughter and any future children they might have in safety there.

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