Ken Beaton: ‘Is Paris burning?’
Aug. 25. Was it an historic day 75 years ago? I know many of you reading this commentary weren’t alive in 1944.
Life Magazine’s June 14, 1940, cover photo was a Frenchman with tears streaming down his face, as a German army unit marched through the Arc de Triomphe and down Champs Elysees. The picture symbolized France’s humiliating defeat.
Parisians had suffered 1,532 days, three hours and 52 minutes of being abused, executed and starved under the German Army’s hobnail boots.
Paris was liberated! French men and women went to their secret hiding place and removed their Tricolour, France’s flag. Friday, Aug. 25, 1944, was a day to proudly fly your Tricolour, rejoice, thank God and your liberators!
Five years ago, I read Larry Collins’ and Dominique Lapierre’s book, “Is Paris Burning?” (copyright 1962). Their book activated the theater of my mind. I felt I was beside Ernest Hemingway, Louis Zamperini and all the newly liberated Parisians as they shared their emotions.
I knew how the book would end; Gen. LeClerec’s Free French 2nd Armored Division with the US Army’s 4th ID, Infantry Division, would liberate Paris on the feast day of the patron saint of France, King Louis IX (1214-70) and a Catholic Saint.
“Everywhere, Parisians took out treasures long and secretly stored for this day: a dusty bottle of champagne buried in a closet corner; a dress painfully stitched up from scraps of black-market fabric; a tricolour (the French flag), its forbidden folds hidden for four years; the Stars and Stripes, sewn together from a memory often touching as it was faulty; flowers; fruits; a rabbit; almost any gift, in fact, that might convey a city’s welcome and gratitude.”
One of the 4th ID privates was walking and exploring the streets of Paris and found himself at the entrance to a church. He thought, I haven’t been to church in a while. I’ll go inside and thank God. While he was standing before the votive candles, he realized his M-1 was hanging on his shoulder. Oh my God! What am I doing in God’s house with my weapon? Ashamed, he turned to leave and found himself standing before two nuns dressed in their religious order’s habit.
While the first nun removed his helmet and placed his M-1 in a corner, the second nun returned with a wash basin with hot water, a bar of soap, a wash cloth, and a towel. With the GI sitting in the first pew, they washed his face removing eight weeks of French dirt, grime and his sweat. One nun wiped the soap off. The other nun dried his face. The first nun soaped his face again. She opened a straight edge razor and shaved the 19-year-old’s beard. Each nun had a tear on her age lined cheeks as she kissed each of his smooth cheeks. While looking deep into his eyes as she whispered a prayerful, “Merci.” The private thought to himself, I can’t image the horror these nuns experienced over the past four years. I’ll never forget this moment.
A priest approached Pfc. George McIntyre, 4th ID. One of his older parishioners was a lady dying of cancer who wanted to see an American soldier as proof that she could die in a free Paris. Pfc. McIntyre followed the priest through a maze of streets up three flights of stair to her small apartment. The priest interpreted the woman’s questions into English, “How soon will you reach Berlin?” McIntyre responded, “Soon.” She asked, “How many Boches (Germans) did you kill?” Shocked by her question, he bent over and kissed both of her gaunt cheeks. He whispered, “I’ll be back tomorrow.” Before he returned the next day, she had died in a free Paris.
Three million Parisians celebrated. French men proposed many wine toasts while French women had so many handsome and virile liberators to kiss and hug with so little time!
Vive la Paris! Vive liberte!