By Pfc. Debs Myers

YANK Staff Correspondent

LE HAVRE, FRANCE—Frenchie was coming home. He had left, in the nick of time, almost five years before. He had gone across the border to Spain only a few hours ahead of some men with black slouch hats pulled low over their foreheads. These men had the kind of bulge in their coat pockets that is caused by a bag of peppermint, or an automatic, and peppermint was scarce in France in those days.

These men had asked politely about Frenchie and seemed disappointed that they had missed him. He was, it seemed, wanted for a discussion about politics. Frenchie was an anti-Fascist and had been an officer in the French Army, which had been surrendered to the Germans by Marshal Petain. The men in the black hats did not seem to think it was compatible for a man to be an officer and an anti-Fascist.

frenchie comes home a rifleman with the US ArmyNow the long convoy rolled across the Atlantic carrying Frenchie back again. It was night, and the waves slapped against the steel sides of the hold where Frenchie was telling a group of U.S. Infantrymen about women and war, about political prisons and about cockroaches that jumped like jaguars. Frenchie was coming home as a buck private in the American Army. The infantrymen listened quietly. A fellow like Frenchie ought to know quite a few telephone numbers.

Some men in the corner were singing, and Frenchie talked above the noise. “There can’t be such a thing as a good Fascist,” he said, “any more than there can be a ‘good’ cancer.”

A gangling rifleman from Tennessee asked Frenchie if not liking Hitler made a man an anti-Fascist. Frenchie told him that was part of it. “Well,” said the rifleman, who was 19, “ever since I was a kid I always had kind of an urge to pat my behind at that fellow Hitler.”

The men in the corner were serenading a sergeant. “Good night, dear sergeant,” they sang, “we have to leave you know, you son-of-a-bitch.” The rifleman from Tennessee told them to shut up and they did.

Frenchie had been put in prison, with thousands of other refugees, when he crossed the border into Spain, and when he spoke of the prison, he spoke softly, like a man who wants to remember every detail of something.

He said that five times a day the men in his cell block were ordered to raise their right arms and cry “viva, Franco.” He said some men said this quietly and others shouted it, like men counting cadence.

“We watched with great care the men who cried it loudly,” Frenchie said.

Frenchie said the prison was so crowded that men slept sitting up, propped against other men. “The guard told us,” said Frenchie, “that being so close together made better comrades of us.”

Word had gone out that it was advisable for anti-Fascist Frenchmen to claim that they were American and to identify themselves with American names. Some of the Frenchmen were familiar only with American names they had read in the newspapers. Their guards weren’t any better informed.

One day a guard picking a work detail from the roll called the name “Clark Gable.” Fourteen men stepped forward. The guard glowered called the name again. The fourteen men took another step forward.

“Son of a potent pig.” Screamed the jailer, “has this Gable monster fathered a fourth of his nation?”

The prison was deep with cockroaches. “Such cockroaches I never saw,” said Frenchie, “scientific masters of infighting. They would leap from the ceiling at night and spring down a man’s neck. Finally we developed a kinship for them. We called them paratroopers.”

Frenchie was interrupted by the loudspeaker. “Now here this, now hear this,” blared the voice of the ship’s master. “Some of you may be interested to know that Adolf Hitler is dead. He has been succeeded by Admiral Doenitz as head of the German government, such as it is.”

Some of the men cheered. The riflemen from Tennessee said he didn’t believe it. A corporal got out of bed, scratched under his arms, and said he had been hoping the Russians would get Hitler alive. “I read once,” he said, “about some natives in the jungle capturing a fellow and tying him, can down, on a shoot of bamboo. Next time the natives come back, a few months later, this fellow is still tied there, and the bamboo is growing out of his ears.”

Frenchie was grave. “It seems so many years ago,” he said, “that I would go to a movie in Paris. There would be newsreels of Hitler shaking his fists and screaming. We laughed until we cried. Later we just cried.”

Most of the infantrymen were in their late ‘teens or early 20s. Frenchie was 34. He was coming to France as an interpreter. He said he spoke five languages, French, Russian, Spanish, English and GI. He was squarely built and stocky. He didn’t tell how he got out of the Spanish prison. He had been in the American Army 10 months.

Frenchie didn’t discuss his whereabouts or activities during the four-year lapse between the time he left prison and his entrance in the American army. “I was busy,” he said. His real name was John Volme.

V-E Day came on the same day the transport pulled into port. Sirens wailed in the coastal town, and the shouts of the people could be heard on the boat. Everyone on the transport wanted to go to town, and no one was permitted to go.

Frenchie was unhappy. “Hell of a war,” he said. He drank a victory toast with a bottle of lemon soda, which he had obtained from a member of the crew in exchange for the name and address of a French girl in New York. “She is pimply, unimaginative and has a rancid smell,” Frenchie confided after drinking the toast. He said the lemon soda was too sour.

All night the revelry of the celebrants floated across the pier. Frenchie went to bed early, but slept little. France was celebrating victory in a war begun long ago, and Frenchie was marooned on a boat, anchored at a pier.

Early the next morning a newsboy sold a newspaper printed in French to one of the crew members, and Frenchie read the paper aloud to his friends. At the left-hand top of the paper was a picture of Marshal Stalin. At the top right was a picture of the late President Roosevelt. Under Stalin’s picture were these words: “Our comrade of the great armies that strike by land.” The caption under Mr. Roosevelt’s picture stated: “Our beloved friend, Franklin Roosevelt, the great American democrat who died too soon.”

Later in the morning the men left the boat and walked through the streets of the town to a reinforcement depot. Frenchie was himself again. His shoulders were back; his chest was out; he almost pranced as he walked.

The people of the town came into the streets and cheered. A band played the Marseillaise and the people raised a mighty chorus. “March on, march on,” they sang, and the words rang against the buildings and the spires and rolled far out to sea. A girl threw a rose which Frenchie caught. He gave it to the rifleman from Tennessee, who put it in his hip pocket, with his tobacco pouch.

The children of the town ran down the streets at the side of the soldiers. Many of the children were ragged, and many wore wooden shoes. Not a child waved, as children usually do at parades. Instead they made the V-sign.

“It is good,” Frenchie told the rifleman from Tennessee, “to come back to this land and find the children making the V-sign. When I left some very old men were making signs like beggars.” The tall rifleman said he thought the French girls riding bicycles and showing bare legs was a pretty good sign of something, too.

At a corner bellow a hill an old Frenchman with a white beard stood on a bench, raised both arms above his head and spoke to the troops. He looked like a gaunt Monte Wooley, decked out in beret and smock.

Frenchie interpreted the old man’s words:

“He says thank God our beloved France is saved, but the price of cognac is a loathsome scandal.”

For Further Reading Check Out:

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

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