They like America, but these French Air Force trainees are waiting for the day when they will see their homes again.

By Sgt. Adam Yarmolinsky

YANK Field Correspondent

SCOTT FIELD, ILL.—They wear their stripes in bright orange and gold on their should straps and garrison caps; they throw a jaunty palm-out highball to every rank from the lowest two-striper up; their shoulder patch is a red-white-and-blue shield, and they pleasantly astonish bartenders by asking for wine instead of whisky.

These French Air Force GIs are getting the air and ground training that only the unbombed U.S. can offer. The Centre de Formation Personnel Navigant en Amerique—the French Air Force in America—has its headquarters in Washington. D.C., but its training detachments are scattered throughout the States. You can hear French marching songs in Nebraska, watch the unfamiliar movements of French close-order drill in Louisiana and observe weird struggles with the English language in a Florida PX.

french air force training WWII

A French flying officer checks the work of two students at radio school as a GI radio noncom looks on. Their insignia, three chicks backed by the American eagle, proclaims in French, “They will grow larger.”

In spite of language difficulties, the courses are never cut down or spread out for the Frenchmen, and they come through with top-notch grades. Only a select few win out in the stiff competition of the North African end of the line, where the waiting list is as long as an OCS board’s. There’s a lot of rank in the French detachment, and although the men don’t wear hashmarks on their blouses, five years’ service is about average.

The typical GI Jean was called up under the regular peacetime draft in 1938 or 1939, and he’s been in service ever since. Before the fall of France, he was shipped to North Africa for duty, or perhaps he was sent there afterward by the Vichy government. Jean’s family remained in France, sweating out D Day and working for the underground in the meantime. In his wallet, Jean probably carries clippings from a French underground paper telling of sabotage activities.

In his five years, Jean has taken a lot of hard knocks, first as a bleu (recruit) and then, advancing slowly by competitive exams, from deuxieme classe (private) through premiere classe (pfc) and caporal to caporal chef (buck sergeant) or sergent (staff sergeant).

If he got as far as sergent on the other side, Jean entered what was strictly a first-three-graders’ paradise: BOQ, a separate mess and an officer’s uniform. He commanded troops and even had the right to administer punishments.  He was, in fact, an under officer rather than an enlisted man. Now he finds himself back in the GI rut—living in the bay, eating in the mess hall, doing physical training and fatigue, and standing inspections like any newly rated corporal.

It’s a good thing that Jean has this to gripe about, because there seems to be nothing else in his life in the States that he doesn’t like. Even when he’s studying hard for eight or nine hours a day, he’ll tell you America is a six-month furlough. American GIs talk about good soldiers’ towns, but Jean calls this a good soldiers’ country. “Everything is free here for soldiers,” he says. “It wasn’t that way in Africa.” American barracks are like palaces after the cantonments he’s had, and although it takes a little while to get used to our food, he has no complaints on that score. He’s never seen PXs nearly as well stocked as those in the States.

free french air force p-38 pilot

A Free French Air Force pilot in the cockpit of his Lockheed P-38 lightning in Italy.

Jean’s pay—boosted by 20 percent overseas pay, flying pay even if he hasn’t gotten in his time for the month and a couple of 5 percents in fogey pay—is more money than he’s ever drawn before. But he’s always cleaned out a few days before pay day.

Jean’s social life is pretty well cared for by the French communities near the fields where he is stationed. In St. Louis, a French society gives parties for the Scott Field detachment; in New York there is a French canteen, and in most towns there are enough French families to make him feel at home. The commandant d’armes (CO) of the detachment usually locates these families and arranges entertainment for his men. Where there are no French people around, and sometimes even when there are, the boys make up in fast work what they lack in time. One young lady who could speak no French finaly insisted that her sergent buy her a pocket dictionary.

On the post, Jean sticks pretty much with his copains—his own buddies. The English he has picked up in a month or less of concentrated study may be enough to get him by a school with the help of interpreters, but he doesn’t feel at home in the language. He picks up all our standard cuss words but his own are really more expressive, and he usually sounds off in his mother tongue. French slang is a whole language by itself, and Jean likes to tease the American GI interpreters by throwing in words they never learned at school.

In spite of this teasing, Jean gets along very well with the interpreters. They are sometimes his only link with the English-speaking world. They help him with his shopping, go on sick call with him to explain his symptoms and translate the doctor’s advice, and write his love letters. In their spare time, the interpreters are kept busy answering questions from other American GIs, who want to know what two orange stripes on the shoulder mean, or how you give the command for column in French. (It’s “Changement de direction a droite une fois, marche.” Just in case you’re interested.

Jean’s six months in America are a good deal, and he deserves the break after five years of service. But it’s more than just that; it’s a chance to learn a trade that will help him win back his own country. And when you hear Jean talk about France, or see him reading one of the very few Red Cross messages that gets through from his people. You know that winning back his country is what’s at the bottom of his heart.

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