Dec 122016
Paris Opera in Paris, France

Paris Opera in Paris, France

Three months after combat ended I was transferred to Paris to study cinema at Les Hautes Etudes Cinematographique.  I spoke little French and had no interest in making motion pictures. I had read the literature prevalent between two wars: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, dos Passos; the whole Grand Tour of disillusionment. Paris was the center of my heroes’ wounded world, and I was to live there for a few months.

In 1945 I would see what my gods had seen in 1925.

I arrived in Paris by rail from Karlsruhe, a ruined German town.

Karlsruhe stank.

The city had been destroyed by Allied area bombardment. Because it was just over the French border it had no anti-aircraft defenses. Those of our bombers who could not reach their assigned targets would unload on Karlsruhe before returning to England. It reeked because so many humans had decomposed under the wreckage.

Karlsruhe-Paris was an overnight train ride. We arrived at the Gare du Nord (North Station) in a cloud of steam and confusion and were loaded into small Army trucks.

The first time I saw Paris it was a city like none I had seen in a year. Intact. The roofs were on the buildings. No wreckage in the streets. Windows, shops — and best of all, out of an avenue, a girl on a bicycle suddenly swung behind our truck. Her skirt billowed to her shoulders, her undergarments were visible, and her good bare legs cycled away. As quickly as she arrived, she turned into a side street.

We arrived at our hotel. The non-com in charge of quarters said “You‘re three days early. Here are the keys to your rooms. Check in every now and then.”

I walked the streets of Paris. These were the cafes and avenues I had read about. The clichéd landmarks were fresh for a man in his early twenties. The stereotypes came from two dimensional photographs. Paris was three dimensions plus smells, shadows, sound, and living people. I went into the Cathedral of Notre Dame and was awed. I stood under the Eiffel Tower and was bewildered. I crossed the Seine at three different bridges, right bank to left bank and back twice more.

Sometimes trite is right.

Paris is the most beautiful city in the world for strolling on foot.

On the Boulevard Haussman I saw a girl who looked lovelier at each approaching step. I stared. The sight of her injected me with an overdose of testosterone, a heave of macho, a surge of Type A manliness. My lust must have had a vocal grunt element, or more probably my ogling and body language menaced her. She disappeared into a large door at the back of a large building.

It was the Opéra. I went to the front and bought a ticket. I saw my first ballet in July of 1945. My seat was way up, in Paradise. Since I knew so little French I became a three-a-week balletomane. Coincidentally, the captain in charge of our billet had been a dancer, although it took him time to admit it. In that era all male dancers were presumed homosexual. Captain Charles Pinckney was not.

He was an elegant Bostonian with a graceful redheaded French mistress, an older lady probably in her thirties. Ani worked for Guerlain, and one day the captain took our cinema class to learn about the superiority of French fragrances. It was a promotion of course, but there was Pinckney’s girl demonstrating the perfume Chypre.  She taught us how ladies put it behind their ears, and then demonstrated that drops should be put on the upper thigh, so that when a seated woman’s legs were crossed the perfume would be warmed and the scent would arise from her skirt when she rose. The skirts weren’t short in 1945.

We saw the riches of Paris. The trouble was, we couldn’t afford the city. Soldiers were paid in Army coupons, rather than French francs. The coupons were worth two francs each. On the black market the dollar was worth many times more. So we ate in the mess halls instead of the restaurants and bought next to nothing.

One day near the end of a month, the American military decided to pay us in dollars. We were asked to turn in the coupons, and we’d receive our pay translated into French francs. We were all broke and had little scrip, so somehow, a swindle took place. The finance clerk paid us at two francs to the dollar as if we had deposited our full pay. He pocketed the rest. On the same day the clerk got orders to go back to the States. He was stuck with two bags filled with ten thousand franc notes in numerical order. Home was more important than Frog francs. He had to get rid of the pay sacks.

He gave one to me. He asked me not to buy anything that could be traced to him. I was to take the large bills and spend them out of numerical order. I was not to buy property, nor use them for large black market purposes, and I was never to mention his name.

I was probably the richest corporal in Paris. I bought a whole box for myself at the ballet. I could have bought a building and stayed in France for years.

One of the translators in the class was Andrée Zaigue. Her English was excellent. She lived near the top of the hill of Montmarte. I asked her to dinner several times at a restaurant near her home. The last meeting went very late. The lights of the City of Light were about to go out.

Electricity was rationed during the winter of 1945. The subway closed down at midnight. It was a long way from the restaurant to my hotel, and I finally had the courage to ask her if I could stay at her home. I knew she liked me. Courtship must be culminated.

She agreed. I was a wonderful man. But I had to understand that while she was a disciple of Jean-Paul Sartre and an existentialist, she was also a fervent Catholic. It was the contradiction in herself that she was trying to work out, with much joy and some pain. She was sorry, cher Perry. Perhaps after she had applied logic to her emotions? Not tonight, mon ami.

I left hurriedly. The blackout was to begin and the metro was about to stop.

I started down the hill.  I was lost. I met an older woman and asked her in French where I could find the subway station.

“Madame, je suis perdu. S’il vous plait, dans quel rue est le metro?”

Her response, very slowly, “Messieur, est-ce-que vous parlez francais?”

It was my American accent.

The hardest word in French for an American is rue. That “r” is in the back of the throat where English never visits. In Yiddish there is Chaim, in Spanish Xavier, In American there is no such sound, unless the throat is cleared.

But bad as the “R” is, the ue in rue is worse. From the back of the throat to forward of the lips was too long a journey for me.

Worse– perdu had that r and that French u again. It came out as in Bloomington Indiana’s University of Purdue.

All i’s in French are pronounced as eel, the fish, not ill, the sickness.  And all those American flat A’s should have been Ah’s as in “Ah-hah, villain!”

No wonder she asked me if I spoke French.

She also said something I heard only phonetically.

“Et quand est-ce que les Américains vont rentrer chez eux?”

She was politely asking when we would leave. But later on the walls: “Yankee go home.”

The electricity was out, but there was a full moon. I walked all the way downhill in moonlight. Here and there, gas lamps, lanterns, and candles.

I was in a time warp. The city was no longer 1925. It was Paris before electricity. Not the Paris of the between-the-wars gods I knew — Hemingway and dos Passos — but of the immortals sixty years before them. La Belle Époque about 1880.

In art, the early impressionists, Renoir and Manet; and van Gogh who hated electric lights. In music, Ravel, Gounod, Chabrier, Saint-Saens. In literature, Zola, Proust, Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert.

When I finally got to the bottom of the hill I had pledged myself to this exasperating, civilizing country.




Dec 062016


Soldiers of the 69th Infantry Division 273rd Infantry Regiment met soldiers from the Soviet 58th Guards Division on April 25, 1945 in the vicinity of Torgau, Germany on the Elbe River.

Soldiers of the 69th Infantry Division 273rd Infantry Regiment met soldiers from the Soviet 58th Guards Division on April 25, 1945 in the vicinity of Torgau, Germany on the Elbe River.

One May night, the Third Battalion heard military movement on the other side of the Elbe. Some foolish American officer ordered random fire over the river. He was foolish because our reconnaissance parties and the Soviets had met several times. We knew they were on their side of the river, and they knew we were on ours. They returned fire and a Russian mortar shell burst fifty feet or so to my left, but nobody was hurt.

Then silence.

Reason prevailed over procedure. It could have been an international incident.

The Russians had brought tanks to the edge of the Elbe. They had advanced to the agreed upon line of demarcation between there Army and ours. We had been trigger happy but our official report (later dictated to me and refused by me) would read that we had run into a German unit and fired on it to defend ourselves. That action is still in the official Army History. Unhappily for historians, happily for me.

The next morning we saw their soldiers on the far bank. Our officers fueled the barges and went to meet their counterparts.

The first contact had been made a few days earlier at Torgau, up river. Both sides wasted a day getting their publicity machine ready. The Torgau meeting was re-staged for reporters and cameramen and became a stock footage standard for films on World War II.

GI Joe’s (we hated the term) and Russian Ivan’s meeting, shaking hands. Cut to a Soviet accordion player. Pan to Russians dancing on their heels, cut to Allies arm in arm. Smiles, many smiles to be used as inter-cuts. A Russian officer, a two star American general who had probably come from ten miles back.

No one will ever believe it could be otherwise. Documentaries can’t lie.

At our quieter meeting, further north, each side was curious, but indifferent.

A day or two later some fifteen of us were detached and trucked back to Hanover. We were told our mission was to guard a castle, Schloss Hanover.

“Against whom are we guarding, sir?”

“The Germans. The Germans loot too. This place is full of valuables.”

We moved into the guardhouse. We couldn’t wear shoes. The beautiful hardwood floors of the castle were not to be marred. Felt slippers were obligatory for all, including visitors. They came, mostly at night—officers with flashlights whose indifferently patterned beams reorganized grandiose paintings by obscure artists.

The Hanoverian Kings of England came from here. Indeed, the British relieved us several days later. Their officers arrived in an enormous Bentley.

We were moved south to the Neckar Valley, just outside Heidelberg. We had nothing to do.

There was talk that we would be shipped to the States, and then to Japan.

We lived among the Germans in German houses. A directive from the war department confused us. The policy was “non-fraternization.” Soldiers who fraternized with the Germans would be fined $75.

There was a quick answer “Fucking is not fraternizing!”

I was asked to use my Yiddish again. “How do you ask them out?” “Like, for a walk?”

“Say, ‘Whoa len sea spot sear en gay en.’”

I never asked it myself. After Ahlem Hanover and for the next decade I wanted nothing to do with them, and I bought nothing of German manufacture.

American capitalism appeared before American government arrived. The supply section liberated some red, white, and black cloth and recruited local women to make banners. The ladies were paid in soap, coffee and C rations. The flags were sold to the rear-echelon personnel.

In a local foundry a great circular seal was struck. In the center, the American eagle, and around it the text: THIS SEAL IS TO SATISFY GERMAN DESIRE FOR OFFICIALDOM. The flag ladies were given stamped documents, signed by a forged Franklin Roosevelt signature.

An engineering friend and I built a radio station, WCIR, for W Cowhide Infantry Regiment, our unofficial designation. Unfortunately, we had chosen the same frequency the British were using and we were shut down as soon as military government arrived.

I wrote and narrated a broadcast in the style of Norman Corwin—something that sounded like poetry but wasn’t. I remember the first two lines:

You are in a foxhole north of Geilinkirchen

Between rain and winter…”

Later it reminded me of Robert Frost’s comment on Carl Sandburg’s free verse.

“It’s like playing tennis without a net.”

The commander of our regiment, Colonel Roy, was a stranger to me. I never saw him during the two years I served under him. The Colonel had an idea: he wanted a souvenir book published on the actions of his unit. He passed his notion to Captain Richard who told me I was to assemble all my papers and write a book about our valor. Captain Frank Roles accompanied him.

“We have chosen someone to do the maps. Captain Roles and I have gone to the biggest publishing house in Mannheim. They will do the printing. Captain Roles will go to Paris to examine the Signal Corps archives for photos. You will write the text. Clear, Wolff?”

“Sir, the pictures will be related to the text. I’d like to go to Paris with the Captain.”

“So would I, soldier. That’s all.”

Kalbfleish and Roles were both West Pointers. Our civilian officers often referred to regular army men as WPPS, the West Point Protective Society. As an infantry major, Roles had been drunk at the first American encounter with the enemy, the 1943 battle at Kasserine Pass in North Africa. By General Patton’s orders he had been stripped of his rank and given a dishonorable discharge. He re-enlisted as a private in the Army, requesting infantry duty. Whether it was his bravery, or the influence of the WPPS he got a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant, then a First Lieutenant, and then a Captain. As I was to learn, he had his eye on the gold oak leaf worn by Majors.

The manuscript was prepared from the notes I had gathered and from accounts sent in by each company in the Regiment. I was to take credit as the author, but that error on the banks of the Elbe suddenly became crucial to my future. I wrote that we had fired on the Soviets by mistake.

They wanted no mistakes.

Kalbfleish asked me to change it. He couldn’t order me to write a lie, but that is what he wanted. I said no. We had already disagreed. I had insisted on a listing of the men of the 334th Regiment who had been killed. An honor role. They disagreed, but I slipped the record in anyway.

Suddenly the obscure writing job assigned to me became of great importance. It was always expected to be a commissioned officer’s duty, as required by Army Regulations. My part-time job as a corporal writing military reports was taken over by Captain Frank Roles, certain to be Major Frank Roles again, particularly at pension time. I was to be his aide, unless I wanted reassignment.

Reassignment meant I was to be transferred out—to Paris.

The book was published as Fortune Favored the Brave and if you ever read it, you will see that our Third Battalion fired on GERMAN, not Russian targets.*

You will also see Colonel Roy looking fearlessly in the future—and showing a trim figure. You will probably not read the names of the dead, but their families will. No money was paid to the Mannheimer Großdruckerie. Butter, K rations and fuel were bartered for the printing. I received several copies once I was in Paris. I was credited as the author. I should have taken my name off the book.

* See footnote under Waiting for the Russians


The American-Soviet Linkup at Torgau, Germany on the Elbe River,