Friday, March 31, 2023

August 1944: The American Conscientious Objector, Part 4: Seismic Shifts

OSS Insignia

I heard from a historian yesterday who specialized in the OSS Operational Groups, and ... Well, buckle your seatbelts and brace yourself for a paradigm shift:  The conscientious objector may not have actually been a CO, and he might have lied to my grandfather.

The irony here is really thick: the decision to finally go ahead and immigrate to America might have been at least partially based on a lie.  That irony appeals to the writer in me. Still, it also makes me a little uncomfortable as Arthur's granddaughter because it implies that my grandfather either fell for a deception OR he got some part of the story significantly wrong.

The case for the lie:  

The group description, timing, and location all point to the OSS Operational Group JUSTINE. It was a 15-man group that parachuted into the Vercors on 28 June, conducted ambushes against the Germans, and was on the run or hiding for much of the time.  From the website linked above, we also know the following: 

23 July-15 August. With German forces surrounding and patrolling the Vercors, the Section headed north toward the Chartreuse Mountains. An 11-day period was spent in the woods, the Section surviving on raw potatoes and occasional cheese. With Maquis help the Section, in weakened condition, reached the Belledonne Mountains.  

17 August. 11 airmen joined the Section.

If my grandfather encountered JUSTINE, then it was probably the group from August 17th that he encountered.

The historian knew the members of the group personally, and here are some excerpts from what he wrote me:

  • The elements that dropped in were so small, that there would not be the ability to accommodate a CO in a denied environment. Each man had to be able to and willing to fight. The OGs went through a selection and assessment process, and a training regime that was heavy on combatives and firearms familiarization. A CO would have been weeded out as they would not fit the mission profile.
  • I knew many of these men and have researched, studied, and written about the OGs for almost 20 years. I knew many of the group that went into Southern France. Because they trained together for an extensive period, they were very close, and had no trouble talking about each other. I only mention this because if there had been a CO among their ranks, I certainly would have heard about it. 

The case for the mistake:

The size of the radio and its broadcast capabilities don't fit with the OSS Operational Groups. Here's what the historian said (note: these quotes came from different emails):

  • JUSTINE did have radios, and the operator was T/5 James W. Murray. For the first set, the crystals were either faulty or damaged in the drop. The signal was so weak that they often could not get past the atmospherics to reach base in Algiers. The second set, dropped on 12 August, performed better.
  • However, these radios would have been very portable, because the section had to move on foot. Therefore, a large radio like your [grand]father described would not have been utilized by an OG. The OGs that entered France from Algiers, appear to have used SSTR-1s. These sets would be supplemented with small radios previously parachuted into the resistance because the SSTR-1s were very delicate and hard to parachute/move across country without damage. 
  • It is also possible (given the size of the radio he mentioned) that it was at another time entirely when they were already liberated. While a team would not have been in touch with the Pentagon, it could have been another element entirely. 

Once I got past my shock, I decided to make a list of possible explanations, even the ones I hated:

  1. My grandfather never met a CO, liked the idea of it, and added it to his own story.  No. Absolutely not.  It's really not possible. He was honest to a fault and rigidly ethical.  NO ONE who knew him would ever agree that he would do that. He even corrected something he said in his speech (he said the CO was the first American he had ever met), explaining that technically, he'd encountered an American earlier in the summer but never spoke to him.
  2. My grandfather mistakenly conflated two different stories. Perhaps he met the JUSTINE group and met a CO later, after liberation?  After a certain point in late August and through September, LOTS of Americans came through his area (were daily visitors to his FFI unit’s command post).  This feels really unlikely, but maybe?  But my mother and aunts grew up hearing it, starting when they were small children (i.e., so close to the time), and the details never wavered in 5 decades.
  3. My grandfather misunderstood the man in some way. This is possible, but the story's details don't support this idea. In a letter dated just a few weeks after the events in question, he described his English skills: he easily understood the BBC broadcasts. He could comfortably write well in the language but had difficulty speaking it, particularly with slang and difficult words. "Conscientious Objector" might be a complex phrase, but the rest of the conversation would have been easy to follow.  I know from his writing in English that dates from that time that his skills really were pretty good. 
  4. The soldier was lying or joking, and my grandfather didn’t realize it.   This is a possibility. Thus far, one friend and two historians have independently suggested this possibility.
  5. The soldier WAS a CO but was part of a group other than the OSS Operational Groups. This is also a possibility.  I believe this is most likely if my grandfather got the timeline wrong, and it happened later, after liberation, when the Allies could afford to send in a conscientious objector.  The size of the radio described by my grandfather supports this scenario. Still, there is precedent for his misremembering the sizes of things (he got the scale pretty wrong when he described the tank traps his factory produced before the occupation).
Right now, I favor numbers 4 and 5 above, but I am leaning toward 4 because it best matches my grandfather's stories. Only the size of the radio size didn't fit, and he might have remembered that from a different event.

I asked the historian who studied the OSS Operational Groups for his thoughts, and he suggested a pretty good, pragmatic reason the soldier would have attempted to deceive my grandfather, one that doesn't make him seem like a liar or practical joker:
I will leave it to you to decide what is the best scenario. If the soldier your grandfather approached were an OG, I think it highly unlikely they would provide a weapon to an interested party to examine, especially if that person was unknown to them. Please keep in mind the team would have recently parachuted into enemy-occupied territory and was still getting the lay of the land. Since there were spies and collaborators in the area, it would have been very risky to give up a weapon simply because someone wanted to see it. The OG would have no idea of the motive of the person asking. A CO story could have been a way to get someone to move on. Just a thought.

I rather like this explanation. It is an entirely reasonable explanation for the American's actions.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

August 1944: The American Conscientious Objector, Part 3

I got another response from a command historian with the U.S. Army about my request to better understand how a Conscientious Objector wound up as a radio operator and paratrooper in France in August of 1944:

Finally, I find a conscientious objector serving in the field with the OSS unlikely.  Extremely UNLIKELY.  While I could see the OSS having conscientious objectors, especially if they had special technical or language skills.  

However, it had plenty of analytical, behind-the-lines jobs that would use those skills. So it doesn't make sense that an operational group would have a conscientious objector.  It's not so much that they were considered cowards as the team needed to have confidence in everyone else.  If you were in enemy territory, would you want someone on your team that would not carry a weapon and be prepared to shot someone that was threatening you?  Yes, this conscientious objector might have wanted to volunteer, but would the team have taken him?  

On the other hand, stuff happens in war.  Did the primary radio operator break his ankle/leg in a training accident just before the mission? Then the OSS couldn't get a replacement in time so had to scrape up one from England or North Africa (wherever they started from).   

My initial impression was that the American was more or less teasing your grandfather--it's something that I might have done: making light of the dangerous or stressful situation with absurdity.  But that's all guessing on my part.  

So, another "unlikely but not impossible" response. :-)

1943: International Red Cross: An 80-Year-Old Family Message

This is my love note to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the story of how they helped my family 80 years ago.

The ICRC was founded in 1863 in Switzerland, and to date, the organization and its founder have been honored by the Nobel committee FOUR times. The very first Nobel Peace Prize ever awarded went to Henri Dunant in 1901 for founding the Red Cross. The second was awarded to the ICRC in 1917 (in response to their activities in WWI), in 1944 (their efforts in WWII), and in 1963 to both the ICRC and the League of Red Cross societies (the national-level organizations like the American Red Cross) to honor them for 100 years of efforts.

Let's put that in perspective. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded only 30 times since 1901 (if they don't feel someone deserves the prize in a given year, they just don't award it). Only one other group has been awarded the prize more than once: the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 1954 and 1981. 

One of the ICRC's missions is to reconnect families separated by war and disasters through their "family messages," and they have been doing it since its founding. You can read more about it here: 

And almost exactly 80 years ago, on March 3, 1943, they sent a message on behalf of my family:

(Click on the images to enlarge)

The messages were short (25 words or less), and my grandfather wrote: "All three are healthy. Have you already sent 300$ for Roma to the address: Dr. Stanisz,  Binningen, near Basel Waldeckweg 46, Switzerland. Kisses"

The message was to my Great-Uncle Jake (my grandmother's brother) in the United States, letting him know my grandparents and their daughter were OK. But it also asked for money in a very curious way.

It was tricky for Americans to get money to families in occupied countries. In effect, they gave the money to a local friend with a family member living in Europe. The money was passed to the person in Europe, who withdrew it and gave it to the intended recipient. 

In other words, Uncle Jake finds out that a friend here in the United States has a brother (or something) named "Dr. Stanisz," who lives in Switzerland.  Uncle Jake opens a bank account in Dr. Stanisz's name at a bank here in the US.  Dr. Stanisz then (through international banking procedures) withdraws the money and passes it to my Grandma Roma in France.

 I don't exactly know why Uncle Jake couldn't just open a bank account in my grandmother's name. Still, I can guess: My grandparents were living in France illegally, sometimes under false identities and forged identification papers.  And withdrawing $300 (several months of salary in those days) from an enemy bank would have drawn attention my grandparents couldn't afford.

I don't have Jake's response to the family message, so I do not know what info the Red Cross provided to back to my grandparents.  But in the fall of 1944, after their area was liberated, my grandparents sent a very long letter to Jake summarizing their life in France between 1941 and 1944; the letter mentioned both the money transfer AND the family message (assuming it was the same Red Cross family message, but the timing checks out):
You let us know in a family message from the Red Cross, which took 15 months for the outward and return journey ...  
In 1942 and 1943, we tried twice to get you to pay $300 to people whose families were living in France or Switzerland and who would be able to send us money. We did not succeed. But I hope you didn't pay anything. This is Mrs. Grace Lynch and Dr. Stanisz. 
Interestingly, after the war, my grandfather - in a series of telegrams - directed Uncle Jake to get money to Grace Lynch, who lived in Massachusetts, so she must have sent them money at some point, though I don't have the details.

But there's another important role the ICRC played in my grandfather's life:

The Red Cross was directly responsible for the Geneva Convention treaties ratified by most world governments.

The Geneva Convention governs the treatment of enemy soldiers, POWs, and civilians in war zones and occupied countries. What most people don't know is that there have actually been four Geneva Conventions:
  • 1863: the first convention occurred the same year the ICRC was founded, and it obliges combatants and governments to care for wounded soldiers, regardless of which side they are on. 
  • 1909: the second convention extended these protections to naval forces and shipwreck survivors.
  • 1929: the third convention added protections for POWs.  There were also efforts to establish protections for civilians, but they were ultimately unable to get them ratified.
  • 1949: The fourth convention happened in direct response to the atrocities of WW2. It added protections for civilians in war zones and occupied areas and updated all the protections from the first three conventions.
Another amazing thing is that ICRC openly lists its operational failures on its website. Here's what they said about the third convention:
The ICRC persuaded governments to adopt a new Geneva Convention in 1929 to provide greater protection for prisoners of war. But despite the obvious broader threats posed by modern warfare, it was unable to have them agree on new laws to protect civilians in time to prevent the atrocities of World War II.
They are even blunter about WW2:
However, this period also saw the ICRC's greatest failure: its lack of action on behalf of victims of the Holocaust and other persecuted groups. Lacking a specific legal basis, bound by its traditional procedures and hindered in its ability to act by its ties with the Swiss establishment, it was unable to take decisive action or to speak out. It was left to individual ICRC delegates to do what they could to save groups of Jews.
The Geneva Convention protocols were very important to my grandfather, as a potential victim of violence and later when his FFI unit dealt with a prisoner.  

Being in the FFI was dangerous, not just because he was a soldier with no training and was fighting a well-trained, well-armed enemy, but also because Nazi Germany ignored requests from the Allies and the ICRC to consider the FFI an Allied military organization. They summarily executed FFIs as armed civilians and terrorists.  
I had many, many, many friends who, instead of being … treated as soldiers and waiting for the end of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp, they were shot. Killed immediately.
Grandpa took comfort from his FFI Armband (his uniform), and though it offered little protection or guarantee of fair treatment, it was better than nothing.

And later, his unit captured a French traitor and Milice member who participated in the mass execution of another FFI unit. Grandpa hated the man, yet provided him with food and water when the rest of the unit refused, because he genuinely believed in the Geneva convention.  He hinted about it here:
First, he denied being the traitor we were all looking for. But after a clever, long questioning by one of our officers, he confessed his crime. He was then left for a day in a barn, without any food or water, as a result of all this hatred accumulated against him. But this was against my own principles of humanity and civilization. We did not wage war against the barbarian Nazis to become similar to them, even not in retaliation.  I brought him some food and water. He thanked me. Looking straight into his eyes, I said, “Would you have done it [for me]? I know that you wouldn’t, and you do not deserve my help. I do not do it for you, but for myself, for my conscience.”
One more historical note about the ICRC:  many national-level organizations were founded after it was established in 1863. The very first was the German Red Cross in that same year. Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross 18 years later, in 1881 (I suppose America was too consumed by the Civil War to be an early adopter), and the American government ratified the protocols just a year after Barton founded the ARC.  

The International Red Cross and the American Red Cross are worthy organizations. I hope you'll consider donating blood and/or money:
One final (and slightly stupid) note: That historical family message form was printed in 3 languages: French, English, and German.  I've found misspellings in German and English, and inconsistencies in punctuation, typeface and other things.  THIS is why you hire tech writers, people!

Monday, March 27, 2023

August 1944: The American Conscientious Objector, Part 2

The conscientious objector story is still tripping me up, so I wrote to the U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) asking about the Conscientious Objector (CO) that my grandfather met in France around the time of Operation Dragoon (August 15, 1944) which was the secondary landing of the Allies in southern France. Did they know if any COs ever learned to be paratroopers and radio operators?

COs regularly did go behind enemy lines unarmed, but usually as chaplains or medics and also typically as part of big groups that could afford to have unarmed people in their party.  Small commando groups like the one my grandfather described wouldn't have had the luxury of including an unarmed person without a really good reason.

So the first thing I thought of was giving the man another duty - perhaps he was the radio operator and a medic.  But what else? What other specialized skills might he have had that would explain allowing a CO to go along on such a trip? He apparently didn't speak French  - I think my grandfather would have mentioned it if so - and my grandfather specifically mentioned how difficult it was for him to understand the guy's American-accented English.  Maybe he had electronics knowledge or something?

Anyway, I got a response from the CMH yesterday. Here's one military historian's thoughts on the matter:

Hmm, dubious but remotely possible. This unit sounds a lot like one of the Operational Groups (OG), from the Office of Strategic Services. There are indications that the OSS allowed conscientious objectors although I doubt they could have been in a small combat unit like the OG’s.

Possible the USASOC history office might have more details on OG’s in France and their recruitment/personnel. Even though OG’s were technically not part of the Army, they drew heavily on Army personnel. Conscientious objectors were given noncombatant roles in the Army during WWII—see “Hacksaw Ridge.” Whether that included medics for a small group behind enemy lines is less certain.

The CMH librarian also included about 20 additional email addresses I could use to ask further questions, so hopefully there's more info to come.

In the end, I may just have to accept that the American was simply exceptional and while hard to believe, was real.

Friday, March 24, 2023

I saw the aurora for the first time last night!

The Northern Lights. They are both more spectacular than my photos reveal, and less, too. They are like immense silent ghosts frolicking across the sky, curtains of mist, columns of smoke, here one moment, gone the next.

Photos cannot capture the size of this ephemeral event, nor the movement. Sometimes they fill the entire sky and surround you, sometimes there are only one or two giant lonely will-o-the-whisps dancing in the north. The real thing was less colorful than our photos suggest, mostly shades of white and gray, with just the barest hint of color, but the colors I saw in photos other people took last night show that conditions were better elsewhere. But it was so neat where we were, that I cannot complain.

I got to see the lights last night because of my daughter Kivi, and because of the National Weather Service out of Duluth. I’m normally asleep by 10pm but last night Kivi and I had been texting about a story idea, and my imagination was in overdrive (I never sleep very well when I’m in creative mode, regardless if it's writing or knitwear design) and I was having trouble relaxing and was weary but wide awake. So I start scrolling through Facebook on my phone when the National Weather Service post slid through my feed alerting people that the aurora was on display.

People had posted SPECTACULAR photos with ripples of electric-kelly green and bright hot pink as responses to the NWS post, and I knew I HAD to check to see if we could see them too. So I walked barefoot (27F/-3C!) onto our deck. I didn’t have my glasses on, but I thought I could see some misty lights in the sky; I went back in, crept into our bedroom and said as quietly and gently as I could, “Chris? I think the northern lights are out. It may be a bust, and it may ruin your night of sleep, but do you want to get up to see them?”

“What?” he asked sleepily.

“The National Weather Service posted that the northern lights are out. Do you want to try and see them?”

Chris sat up. “Yes.” He was very slightly grumpy and groggy, and our past experiences trying to see them had not been worth losing sleep over, so I really hoped it would be better this time.

It was. It totally was. My first hint was when Chris followed me out onto the porch and looked up, and there was this giant column of mist rising into the sky, and Chris muttered “Jesus,” under his breath. Given our lack of religious belief, that should tell you just how amazing it was.

We’ve been trying to see the lights for years, ever since we moved to Minnesota in 2004. I think I tried to see them 2 or 3 times when we lived in in a small town near Minneapolis, but that town is south of the Twin Cities which puts the metropolitan light pollution directly between us and any aurora that might have been there. And of course, we went to Duluth and Canada regularly where the conditions are better for the lights, but we did those things almost exclusively in the summer (the aurora is a winter phenomenon). Then we moved north to the Duluth area in the fall of 2020 and we thought we'd be more likely to see the lights, but in three winters, we'd not had much luck.

It’s funny - there are definitely pros and cons of moving north. We get a lot more snow, and surprisingly, winter is noticeably longer here (only 2.5 hours north of our last home). There are also no Mexican or Asian groceries in the area (something we had easy access to in the cities), and there are no good Chinese restaurants either. Access to Mexican restaurants is marginally better. Pizza Luce, Fitgers, and Duluth Grill help make up for the lack of our favorite kinds of restaurants, though. But our summers are less hot, and it’s quieter here, we have some land and space, and it’s MUCH MUCH MUCH darker, even living only 25 miles south of Duluth (240K in the metro area, as opposed to over 3 million in the MSP metro area). Our night skies are amazing and sparkly with stars and I can see the Milky Way on every clear night, something I could never see from our house in Jordan.

Love the blue wireless access point showing just under the peak of the roof.

Anyway, I’m tired today, but last night was a gift.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

1940s: Dealing with Foreign Languages, Specifically French and Polish

When I embarked on this project, I knew I was likely to have to deal with at least one language I don't speak: French.  

Between the fact that I studied Spanish, which has a similar structure and lots of cognates with French for three years (but 30-something years ago) had a semester of French (also 30 or so years ago), and most importantly, Google Translate, I was confident I could at least get a reasonable amount of information out of any materials I came across.  Besides, I know quite a few French speakers if I run into problems.

I didn't realize this until later, but French is easy enough to work with because it also uses almost exactly the same alphabet as English. The diacritic marks are painful, though (French. Uses. So. Many. Accent. Marks!) 

For example, just to type the town where my grandparents lived for 3 years during the war, Beaumont-lès-Valence, I type the "Beaumont-l" part as normal, then hold down the letter "e" until the foreign-language variations appear in a pop-up menu, and then I select the "è," then type the "s-Valence" as normal.  

French also uses a LOT of contractions (way more than in English). Those aren't so bad, because English-language keyboards have a key for the apostrophe, and anyone who learns to type knows where it is.  

But get a load of these two sentences: 

Avant d’arriver en France nous ignorions complètement que les lois de l'émigration ont été changées. Nous supposions que du côté des autorités américaines il n’y aura point de difficultés, vu qu'à deux reprises le consulat des Etats-Unis a Anvers nous a admis comme ici me présenter
Before arriving in France we were completely unaware that the emigration laws had changed. We assumed that on the side of the American authorities there will be no difficulties, since on two occasions the consulate of the United States in Antwerp has admitted us (as here) to present myself.

Black text is no big deal. Still slow because I have to pay careful attention to spelling (especially painstaking because I was typing handwritten documents. I do OK reading cursive writing in my own language, but reading French cursive is much harder. Fortunately, the cursive handwriting rules are basically the same between the languages).

Purple text is also no big deal - those words include punctuation marks that I know how to type without even thinking about it (apostrophes and dashes).

Blue text IS a big deal. For those words, I have to stop for each letter that needs a mark, hold it down, and select from the menu.  

I discovered that it's MUCH faster to just type the word without the marks, set the document language to French and let the spell-checker fix the accents. I type "completement que les lois de l'emigration ont ete changees," run the spell-check and it corrects it to "complètement que les lois de l'émigration ont été changées." Easy-peasy.

And in fact, because I was transcribing cursive handwritten French, I often had to guess at spellings, and the spell-checker usually fixes those, too. Once I have a few sentences typed in and spell-checked, I plop the paragraph into Google Translate and read it carefully. If the translation is nonsensical, I go back and experiment with alternate spellings of the problem words until I get it right.  Then I give it to my mom and aunt (who I suspect are feeling a bit put-upon by this point) because it's their dad's handwriting, and there's a pretty good chance that if I cannot decipher a word, they can.

But, as it turns out, Polish has come into my world, too. My grandmother was Polish, and my grandfather was Belgian (and half Polish), and I came across two handwritten letters in Polish. Except for the occasional cognates (or where my great-uncle wrote the word in English) I couldn't decipher it AT ALL.  Oh, and the Polish alphabet has a somewhat smaller overlap with English alphabet. To reasonably type it, you need a Polish keyboard.

But, how do I find Polish speakers? I know a couple, but they've been in the US for 40+ years and they are quite Americanized. And neither have a Polish keyboard. My husband had a pretty good idea: surely there are Polish students studying in the United States, and surely one of them also has a Polish keyboard. From there, a distant cousin gave me a great idea - write to Columbia University Polish Studies department. 

So, I did.  And from there, it got easy. They announced it at a meeting, and I suddenly got an email from a student named Filip offering to do the transcription and translation.  

After he was done, I got the idea that it was somewhat hard for him, too. My great-uncle's handwriting isn't as neat as could be desired.  Polish spelling rules have also changed in the 85 years since these letters were written, and evidently my great-uncle wrote in an old-fashioned, super-formal manner that is no longer common. But Filip was engaging, smart and fun, and he did a FANTASTIC job.

Anyway, here's what Polish looks like:

Wszystkie te dokumenty są in triplicate. Bardzo możliwe że konsul będzie uważać te dokumenty za niewystarczające i zarządzi ażebyś mu dowiodła że ja jestem Twoim bratem. Dla tego celu przesyłam Ci moje świadectwo urodzenia. Jednakże moje świadectwo urodzenia powinnaś nie załączyć do tych dokumentów i pokazać konsulowi jedynie jeżeli zażąda ażeby dowiodła Ci pokrewieństwo nasze. 

All of these documents are in triplicate. It is very possible that the consul will deem these documents as insufficient and will make you prove that I am your brother. For this reason, I am sending you my birth certificate. Although, you should not attach my birth certificate to these documents, and only show it to the consul should he make you prove our kinship.

Anyway, if anyone needs some Polish translation work done, I whole-heartedly recommend Filip.  His contact info is as follows:

Filip Przybycień


Friday, March 10, 2023

August 1944: The American Conscientious Objector, Part 1: Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Some conscientious objectors WERE trained
how to parachute, but for stateside service:
Smoke jumpers (aka forest firefighters)

The main source of information for Biscuit is the oral testimony I recorded in 1988 when Grandpa Arthur was 78 years old. He was slowing down quite a bit by then, but mentally, he was still quite sharp. 

I've managed to confirm quite a few of his stories, and when I compare his stories to earlier primary sources, his stories have remained consistent over the years.  He was also personally extremely honest, so it's safe to say he was a very reliable witness.   

However, he was not infallible.  No one is.  In something like 15,000 words of primary sources, I've independently verified many of his stories, and only confirmed two minor mistakes:
  • The date of his landlady's murder (he was off by 3-ish weeks).
  • The size or form-factor of the tank traps his factory produced prior the invasion of western Europe in May of 1940 (his description doesn't match any tank-trap that I can find).
There are probably other minor errors, but my research has shown that he mostly got stuff right.

But what do you do, when an absolutely pivotal story, perhaps THE most important one in the whole book might not be entirely correct?

Through the efforts of some friends, I've discovered that he may have gotten some combination of details wrong about the first American he ever met:

In August of 1944, during the heavy fighting that followed D-Day, my grandfather (who was serving in the FFI/French Resistance) met an American conscientious objector (CO).  That in itself isn't all that unusual - by the end of WW2, there were more than 40,000 non-combatants serving in the US Military

Anyway, Grandpa had heard about the Thompson submachine guns that he thought everyone in the US military carried. He asked the young American if he could see the man's Tommy gun, and to Arthur's shock, the man stated that he didn't carry any weapons at all, that his religion forbade the taking of a life.  Grandpa thought the man was crazy (but courageous), and admired his moral stance, even if he himself didn't subscribe to it.

It's funny because this story is one I grew up hearing, and so I never thought to question it.  And for the scene in the book, I don't have to rely only family lore or my memory, as he wrote about it twice and also mentioned it in his oral testimony which I recorded in 1988.  If you are interested, I've quoted his actual words at the end of this article. They are really quite powerful.

But, as it turns out, my Grandpa's CO was exceptional to the point of seeming unrealistic:
  • He was a paratrooper.
  • He was a radio operator.
  • He was part of a 15-person commando unit
  • He brought an enormous transmitter to France that apparently allowed him to talk to the pentagon in Washington DC (from France!).

But, two of my beta-readers who are knowledgeable about history were tripped up by the CO story, because:
  • Conscientious objectors who joined the military overwhelmingly served as medics and chaplains.
  • It doesn't make sense to send a non-combatant as part of such a small team, where every person's ability to fight counts.
  • Radio transmitters that were at all portable didn't have the range to send intelligible singles across the Atlantic.  Here's one that was in use: SCR-299. It's maximum range was 2300 miles, about 1700 miles short of being able to talk to Washington DC from southern France. And parachuting one in seems unlikely; they would likely have been boxes of broken glass by the time they reached the ground. These radios had their own generators and were normally housed in the back of trucks.  Sending such a unit seems unrealistic for a parachuted team with no expectation of transportation.
  • The SCR-499 was a better candidate - it was basically the same radio as the SCR-299, but was hardened for airborne use and was modular, so it could be assembled once the paratroopers got themselves and the radio to safety. It only had a range of about 100 miles but I suspect that it would have been possible to bring along a better antenna.

The SCR-299 had a range of 2300 miles, not the
4000 miles between Valence France and Washington, DC.
And the size isn't conducive to a parachute drop

SCR-299 housed in the back of a panel van.

As my beta-readers pointed out, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and just because we can't prove or disprove the CO's details, doesn't mean it didn't happen. Besides, it was wartime, and sometimes the Allies did crazy and seemingly illogical things when they had to.  Maybe a greater percentage of small units survived if they took a medic along? Maybe the guy was actually a medic and only the backup radio operator, and the main one was killed before he reached the ground?  

I do believe my grandfather met and was inspired by an American CO -- that part isn't in question.  But there is some chance he conflated two events into one, though I doubt it.  I just wish I better understood how it came to be.  

As for the radio, I suspect that either the American was pulling my grandfather's leg about being able to talk to the Pentagon, he was speaking metaphorically OR my grandfather misunderstood (he did speak English but not-quite-fluently by that point, and Grandpa did say he had difficulty understanding the American's accent.

[Added: It turns out the SCR 299/499 probably COULD talk directly to the eastern seaboard of the US, depending on time of day, antenna, and atmospheric conditions, using techniques like bouncing the signal off the ionsophere]

I've written to the U.S. Army Center of Military History to ask about the CO and the transmitter to see what they can tell me.  I'll get back to you, if they reply. 

Anyway, here's how he described it:

1974 Yellow Pad Stories:
    I kept on going and did find them. But I have not been the first FFI to contact them. They were with another company of FFI, whose patrol stopped me at gunpoint. A minute later I have been in their camp. All the Americans were asleep except one, busy with a huge and heavy trunk-like box. 
    “What is this?” I asked in English. 
    “A radio transmitter” answered a tall and handsome soldier with a strange accent, which I could hardly understand. 
    “Show me your weapons,” I asked. 
    “I don’t have any,” he answered. I could not grasp “Parachuted/behind the enemy lines, in mountains infested by them, without any weapons; did I understand you properly.” 
    “Yes Sir” he said. “I am a conscience objector and I volunteered to be parachuted as a radio operator to prove once for ever that my objection to bear arms is not due to cowardice but to my belief.” He seemed so strange, so great to me, the first man of the land which will become my country in the future. 
    In Belgium and France, the freedom of an individual to think, believe and say whatever he wishes is the utmost, but in it disappears in war time and the fact that conscience objector to [not] bear arm may be respected in wartime seemed unbelievable to me.

Feb 1988 engineering award speech:

    Then suddenly and unexpectedly Germans left our mountains in a hurry. The reason was that they have detected the fleet of the secondary landing approaching the Mediterranean Coast.
    Then came an electrifying news, An American commando was parachuted somewhere in our mountains.
I was ordered to search for them and to contact them. Here I was hiking at night, from valley to another valley, from a high pass to another high pass. I met a shepherd on a high pasture.
    “Have you seen some Americans here?”, I asked. He said "no, but 5 minutes ago Germans were here.”
    I kept going and finally joined the American commando of 13 people. They had a radio transmitter, as I remember, maybe 6 ft. by 4ft. by 4ft. It was huge, as this was a long time before transistors, printing circuits and chips. But they could talk to the Pentagon in Washington.
    I reported that I was supposed to contact the commanding officer. They told me to wait. By the way, I was only a sergeant.
    Then I started to talk to a soldier, a tall, handsome boy. I asked, please show me your Thompson submachine gun. Mine was a British made, Sten.
    He answered, “I do not have any. As a matter of fact I have no weapons at all.”
    “Why?”, I asked.
    “Because my religion does not allow me. I am a conscientious objector.”
    “But, hell, what are you doing here, beyond the enemy lines, without weapons? Your odds of survival are very, very slim.”
    “Yes,” he answered, “I know. But I wanted to show that I am a true conscientious objector, not a coward.”
    I looked with great admiration at this first American I ever met.
    No less was my respect for America, my future country, in which the religious freedom extended to conscientious objectors.

May 1988 Oral testimony: 

     You read my speech in Dallas. It was not exactly correct, because I say that the first American I ever met was the radio operator – conscientious objector. 
    I already met – I already saw at least, didn’t meet him, didn’t talk with him, a parachuted team of one American officer, one British officer and one French noncommissioned officer, who spoke as a translator. They came to Ourches, and I remember, they were thirsty so they were given water and the English and French drank this water, but the American took a pill dissolved in the water before drinking to avoid contamination. Well, that’s very normal for Americans – I am American now – to behave that way. But in France at that time, everyone laughed like hell. “What’s the matter them? Why are they different?” 
    Well, in any event I saw them, but the one whom I talked freely was only the guide about which I talked on my Dallas acceptance speech of the ... which you know the story.

According to family lore, after my family immigrated here in 1947, Grandpa tried to find the man, but was unsuccessful.  I also wish I knew the American's name, but that may be lost to history.

Perhaps the most famous CO: Desmond Doss receiving the Congressional
Medal of Honor in 1945 from President Harry S. Truman for
saving the lives of over 70 wounded men during WW2.