Family Histories: An Unexpected Trip

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today BRIAN from EQUINOXIO shares a secret story from his mother who served in the French Women’s Army Corps at the end of  World War II:

The photograph came in the post. In a manila envelope, with a note from my brother:

“Here’s a picture of the family star. You’ve probably seen it before. I had it enlarged. Ask her the story behind it. I hope it lifts her spirits. Hugs. Richard.”

My brother’s handwriting was as bad as usual. But decipherable. I looked at the photo. A black & white blow-up of a picture I had indeed seen before in a much smaller format. The enlarged pic was good. My brother had been a photographer before shifting to flea market vendor of old furniture. Had he enlarged the photo himself?

One could easily recognize my mother, early twenties maybe, in an army uniform. With a cap daintily placed on her combed back dark curly hair. She wore a French W.A.C. uniform (Women’s Army Corps). What the French called a P.F.A.T: Personnel Féminin de l’Armée de Terre. Army Female Personnel. Or so I thought. On close look there were wings on her cap. So she was Air Force Auxiliary Personnel. A P.F.A.A, pronounced “Péfa”. There was tall grass in the foreground, trees in the background. It looked like the picture was taken in a garden or a field. Maybe at my grandfather’s house in Rennes? I remembered the house, on the outskirts of the city. It opened up on fields all the way to the horizon.

I’d never asked my mother ‘why the uniform?’ I’d assumed she’d joined the Armed forces at the end of the war as so many had, when France had been liberated. But I had no details. I only knew she’d met my father in Air France in the Fall of ’45, in Paris.

I put the photo and note back in the envelope. I’d give it to her in the evening when I dropped by my parent’s house on my way back from the office.

F Berlin

My mother was in bed. She was mostly bed-ridden then with the cancer that would eventually claim her life. Though always a fighter, she still tried her best to walk a few steps every morning and afternoon in her room. She would say a phrase I will always remember:

“Bon! Ne mollissons pas.” ‘Let’s not get soft’. She would swing her feet to the side of her bed, maybe ask for a helping arm, walk a few steps in the room to a nearby armchair. Rest for a while. Chat. Get up, walk a few more steps and climb back in bed.

She was in good spirits as I kissed her cheek. Later, in the last weeks of the “crab”, she stopped talking. She’d once said that before her mother died in ’44, of a cardiac condition and the privations of the war, she’d spent the last weeks without a word, or a complaint, never whining. Neither were whiners.

I showed her my brother’s envelope. She smiled. Read the note. Said: “your brother’s handwriting is getting worse every day.” Looked at the picture and said:

“Hah! Of course. I remember that picture. That was in Rennes (Brittany) outside your grandfather’s garden.”

“When was that?” I asked. “Do you remember?”

“Summer of ’45, I think. I joined the Air Force after my mother died, that must have been late ’44 or early ’45. There was nothing else to do. Not many jobs. Brittany, Paris, and most of France had been liberated but the war was still on. The Germans were fighting back very hard. Remember the Ardennes?”

“Yes”, I said, “The German counter-offensive that took the Allies by surprise. In the winter of ’44-’45? Were it not for Patton, the outcome of the war could have been very different. So, you were stationed in Rennes?”

“Yes. I lived in Rennes, so I signed up there. I wanted to go to Paris. I’d never left Brittany, and Paris sounded like a promise of liberty. The Air Force was as good an option as anything else.”

My mother never finished high school. Between a working-class background, blue-collar to a fault, the war, her mother’s illness, she had to drop-out. As a typist. At least she had a trade. She even taught my sister and I shorthand. Which I forgot, of course. Quite fun, it was like writing in code.

“I was a typist at the military command for Brittany,” my mother went on. “I asked the Colonel several times for a transfer to Paris. Which he always refused. I was getting desperate to move out of Brittany.”

“What did you do then?” I asked.

She laughed: “I sneaked into the Colonel’s office one day while he was out somewhere. Probably in the loo. And I stole a few “ordres de mission” forms that were lying on his desk. Orders and transportation forms. I filled them with my name, destination Paris, assignment: typist at the Ministry of War, Paris, forged the Colonel’s signature, and hopped on the first train to Paris.” Smile. She was pleased with herself. And I was not surprised. She could cut corners.

“I remember those trains,” I said, “when I was in the Army, stationed near Rennes. Took them back and forth to Paris for a full year! The train back to Paris was always a train to freedom. And nobody noticed? That your orders were forged?”

“No. You must remember this was the war. People moving around, stationed here, moved there, the Colonel probably never even noticed I was gone!”

She was smiling at the good trick she’d played. Got her way as she had always done and would always do. I can imagine the young, pretty Breton girl having the time of her life in Paris.

“If you left for Paris around April or early May, you were, what? Barely 18, or 19?” (My mother was from May 18th, 1926)

“Yes. I was 19. Barely, but old enough to know I wanted a different life.”

“I can imagine. And how was work at the Ministère de la Défense?”

“Mostly boring. I was at the typing pool. Memos and memos, in 4 or 5 copies, with carbon paper. In early May 1945, the race was on between the Allies and the Russians to see who would deal the final blow to the Germans. We all knew it was a matter of days.”

“Hitler shot himself on April 30th in the Bunker in Berlin. Goebbels and his wife killed their six children before killing themselves as well. The Soviets were rushing West, the Allies running East at full speed.”

“Yes”, she said, “the thing was: who would get to Berlin first?”

“The Russians did, right?”

The Soviet Army under Joukov (Zhukov in English) and the first US Army corps under Hodges make their junction on the river Elbe at Torgau on April 25, 1945. The Reichstag is destroyed by the Soviets on April 30th, the red flag hoisted over the ruins. On May 2nd, the German troops in Berlin surrender to the Russians. On May 7th, the Germans surrender in Reims to the Allied troops (British, US, French). On May 8th, Keitel signs unconditional capitulation of the Reich in front of all four Allies including the Soviet generals. A third of Berlin has been completely destroyed, up to 70% in the centre of the city.

“Yes, the Russians got there first,” my mother said. “And then, on May 8th, the war was over. Celebration everywhere, Blue, White, and Red flags in all the streets of Paris, and every village. Japan was still fighting in the Pacific, but for us, in Europe, it was over…”

“And then what?”

“Nobody knew what was going to happen. Many cities in France had been destroyed: Le Havre, Rouen and others. France was basically in ruins. I didn’t know what would happen to my job at the Ministry. If the war was over, there wasn’t really much need in the War Office for a small typist from Brittany. Until…” She paused. My mother always had the knack to pause at the right moment.

“Until what?! What happened? Don’t ‘pause’ me!”

“One morning, I can’t remember when exactly, a few weeks after the capitulation of the Germans, a young and dapper Air Force Captain came to the typing pool. We all suddenly pretended to type something.” Smile. “Work had been slow after the 8th.” She smiled at me again with one of her damn pauses. I kept silent. I could play the game. She went on:

“The Captain asked: ‘Who’s the one who speaks English here?’”

“No! You must be joking!”

“Nope! I kept my eyes glued to my keyboard. See, I’d not… exactly… lied, but let’s say I ‘d ‘exaggerated’ a tad when I joined the Air Force as an auxiliary. On the sign-up form, I’d ticked the box next to ‘Foreign languages spoken’ and written ‘English’ ”.

My mother’s English was flawless but that was after 8 years in India, and 25 years abroad. After the war. I wasn’t sure of the quality of her English in 1945…

“English?” I asked. “In Brittany, during the war, in German-occupied France?”

She laughed. “Well, you could almost be executed for speaking English. ‘Suspected intelligence with the British enemy’ and all that. But I had a self-learning book. Well hidden in the house. And I knew a few people in the Resistance who spoke some English and gave me classes. So, I managed. Not very well, but better than many of our dear compatriots, as you know…”

“I know. English is still not their forte. And the Captain?”

“The Captain repeated: ‘Which one of you speaks English? Come on! I haven’t got all day!’ I lifted my eyes from the keyboard. Raised my hand.”

My mother went on: “The Captain said: ‘Ah! It’s you! Get up. Come with me.’ I took my notepad and my French-English dictionary, just in case. Maybe he wanted to draft a memo in English. I rushed after him. He turned around and told me: ‘Meet me in an hour at Villacoublay. Here are your orders.’ “

“Villacoublay?” I said. “The Air Force base, south of Paris?”

“Yes. I was dumbfounded. But what could I say? I was just a small typist, a WAC. He was a Captain. So, I went along. Then he looked at me. Up and down. And said:

‘Make it an hour and half. You can’t go in that sorry uniform of yours. Give me your notepad.’

“He took out a gold-tipped fountain pen from a breast-pocket under a bunch of ribbons.  He looked young but had certainly earned his share of medals. He scribbled and signed a note, handed the pad back to me. ‘Here. Take this note to the store, get a pair of new uniforms. Yours is a disgrace. And shoes too. Then take any Jeep to Villacoublay. Show them your orders. Meet me there in an hour and half sharp.’ “

It was my turn to be “dumbfounded”. What did the Captain want? Villacoublay? The Air Force base? Another uniform?

“Why another uniform?” I asked my mother.

“Again, think ‘WAR’. France had been occupied, bombed and ransacked for 5 years. There was shortage of everything. Even decent clothes. My uniform was coarse, thick wool. My shoes were practically cardboard! So I went to the Air Force store in the basement. They handed me two brand new uniforms, of the finest, most delicate, softest wool I’d ever seen. Fitted me like a glove. And the shoes! I couldn’t believe it. ‘Des mocassins en chevreau!’ Flat-heel fine leather shoes. I had never seen shoes like that either. I ran to my locker. Grabbed a toothbrush, a pair of panties, stuffed them inside my bag, took the first available Jeep to Villacoublay. The Captain was already waiting. Looked approvingly at my new uniform. A man of not so many words he pointed at a military airplane nearby, engines already running, we hopped on and took off!”

To be continued…

Berlin

A Strange and Blighted Land

Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle

In aftermaths of life even the best ideas on paper can leave a trail of human misery or a path to new life. Many times aftermaths are a mixture of both.

In A STRANGE AND BLIGHTED LAND Gettysburg: The Aftermath of a Battle we travel more on the first path of misery. It didn’t surprise me when halfway through this book its author, Gregory A. Coco, mentioned that he was an atheist. Coco was a  Vietnam combat veteran himself. This had a profound effect on how he viewed battle (and possibly God). As a Gettysburg guide he became frustrated and saddened by visitors who arrived with stars in their eyes and romanticized notions about glorious causes and heroic charges.

This is not to say that there weren’t heroic men — those who fought, suffered and died (or raced to the next battle) and those who raced toward the suffering to help as best they could in what became a twenty-five square mile “sea of misery.”

The numbers, no matter how often I see them, are so difficult to comprehend:

“Nearly one-third of the total forces engaged at Gettysburg became casualties. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac lost 28 percent of the men involved; Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffered over 37 percent.

Of these casualties, 7,058 were fatalities (3,155 Union, 3,903 Confederate). Another 33,264 had been wounded (14,529 Union, 18,735 Confederate) and 10,790 were missing (5,365 Union, 5,425 Confederate).” HISTORYNET.COM

Forty thousand people (just the dead and severely wounded) would look something like this:

people-20000

My next book(s) are going to be fictionalized stories about my ancestors, some of them having served on the Union side in the war. A few did not come home and they haunt me — especially since I’ve discovered their pictures and letters.

While Gregory Coco describes in gruesome and troubling detail the suffering left in Gettysburg’s wake, he only briefly discusses the reasons men and boys went to fight. For whatever reasons, there are people who cling to the idea of a glorious Southern cause. And there are other people who cling to the idea that most Northern soldiers fought for every other reason but the abolition of slavery.

Losers often romanticize the past to, in some way,  make peace with the loss of so many young men. But what bothers me is the segment of modern society bent on burying, along with my young relatives physical forms, the reasons they fought.

I think part of this may come from a prejudice among intellectuals who can’t imagine that nineteenth century  farm boys from Upstate New York could understand and fight for equal rights under God for all people. It’s gratifying and upsetting when I discover a letter or book written in the 1860’s proving this point yet knowing that now these men and their compassion for the victims of slavery don’t receive proper honor for their sacrifices.

Judge a person by the content of their character not the color of their skin …

We do such a great injustice when we paint entire races of people as villains to our children. When we say, “Oh,yes, those young white men died but they were still very racist,” we miss the point that most freed slaves got. Read about how freed slaves stayed in Charleston to set up a cemetery for the white (and black) union soldiers who fought their cause:

“While the city may have been deserted by most of the white folks, there were over 10,000 freed slaves who gathered to greet the Union Army. The story goes that these freedmen and women dug up a mass grave containing the bodies of 257 dead Union soldiers, only to rebury them on May 1, 1865 in a cleaned up and landscaped burial ground.

They built an archway with a placard that said “Martyrs of the Race-Course,” and buried the bodies with a ritualized remembrance celebration, attended by thousands of people, white and black. The ceremony was covered by the New York Tribune and other national newspapers of that day.” FREED SLAVES OBSERVE 1st MEMORIAL DAY

Take a look at those stadiums again. 18,000 or so Union soldiers died or were severely wounded (many dying later) and another 5,000 or so missing. Just think of the missing ones. Those dying under bushes near streams that flooded and drowned them. Others waiting days on wet ground for treatment that never arrived because their bones were only found months and years later. Missing sometimes meant that these boys were buried in mass graves before dog tags were common.

Dead men at least were immune to the barbarity of  Gettysburg’s aftermath.

In Coco’s book we read of maimed Southern soldiers  crowded into unsanitary barns only to have to endure watching the “operators” saw limbs from friends in the middle of the room. Imagine knowing that it was your turn next.

Imagine the baby-faced soldiers (like one of my cousins who enlisted at 16) asking the doctors if he’d make it and being told no.

The Declaration of Independence as Mission Statement:

The founding fathers wrestled with the issue of slavery not because they were prejudiced (of course all people have their terrible prejudices) but because they feared what would happen to a very young nation that hardly considered itself as such. Yes, they were as flawed as we all are — we ALL are — their decision to put off dealing with slavery haunted every political, economic and social debate for years until finally it came to a head in war.

Wouldn’t it have been great to have settled things peacefully? But that didn’t happen. I refuse to make light of the sacrifices of those in my family line. They seriously didn’t have to enlist in the first few months after Fort Sumter. But they did. They fought the good fight in a war that none of us can truly imagine. Many lived with horrible wounds for years. Many lost wives who could not stand the sight of their husbands with disfigured faces. Many families lost children in their prime.

The more I read about the brutality of war the more I abhor it. Yet it boggles my mind that some men — men I am coming to know in personal ways — put their lives in danger battle after horrifying battle.

This country wasn’t built on racism exactly. Conquest by brute force and tribalism was the way of the entire world — no WWII soldiers giving out Hershey bars for the most part. Countries aren’t built on only one thing. That’s too damned simplistic. The country was built on a flawed set of people with one very unique mission statement:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Mission statements suggest that we are also works in progress and that we have not yet fully attained the noble sentiments we hold dear. Some farmer boys enlisted, were injured and re-enlisted only to die. They’re in my gene pool. Reading letters and books from the period leave little room for modern revisionism. They were proud of the part they were playing to make the mission statement a reality. I’m proud of them too.

Gregory Coco’s book is divided into five sections:

The Battlefield in the Aftermath “No tongue can depict the carnage”

The Burial of the Dead “A long black shadow”

The Care of the Wounded “A great rushing river of agony”

Prisoners of War, Stragglers, and Deserters “The woods are full of them”

From Battlefield to Hallowed Ground “The sacred sod”

Each section highlights a profoundly moving element of the battle’s aftermath. We tend to remember battles and their dates, maybe even enjoy perusing books on strategy and famous generals. It’s hard to linger in the shadow of suffering and loss. It may even be healthier not to linger too long, but for the people who fought and didn’t die the battle was there forever. In amputations by the thousands, in disfigurement of body and soul (even if outwardly healed).

A battlefield is sacred, Coco points out, not for the later generations but for the families of the men who died — so many of them buried as unknown but known to mother and father deeply — and the ones who escaped death but lived with a lifetime of pain. For those people wondering if it was their son’s bones being unearthed by plows and curiosity seekers the battlefield was something so much more than we can truly understand. Thank God.

 

Further reading:

AMERICAN BATTLEFIELD TRUST

BATTLE-SCARRED: CARING FOR THE SICK AND WOUNDED OF THE CIVIL WAR

CARING FOR WOUNDED HORSES OF THE CIVIL WAR

Adrienne Morris is the author of

The Tenafly Road Series

The Tenafly Road Series

“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”

Fiction: Freedom

“Thankful is a uniform chaser,” William said.

“Now, you should take that back. Thankful’s a romantic and a good girl, and I’ll help her all I can.”

“So I guess you’ll be taking my spot on Mr. Kenyon’s team.”

“Me?” Buck chuckled. “My cartography skills are only fair to middling. Nothing on the wonderful maps you’re able to make. No, I’m going back to school and try to do better. I want to be a good officer if that’s what God wants.”

William moaned. “Oh, I get it. Is Mr. Kenyon going to give you a reference or something?”

“No. I’m grateful to Seth, but after all he hardly knows me.”

“I know your heart, son,” Kenyon said. “You’ll do splendidly, and if you ever do need a friend or reference you have it. You have a greater supporter than this old sinner, though.”

“Oh! I can’t stand another word!” William said. “How can Buck be forgiven and changed and all this crap in three days, and I’ve been with you, Mr. Kenyon, for weeks and weeks and I feel nothing new? God—if there is one—hasn’t made any effort with me. No tap on the shoulder. Buck is and always has been too weak to stand on his own, and now there’s no Fred or any other Crenshaw to hide behind so instead he’ll ask some invisible god to make his decisions. It’s a weakness.”

Buck glared at him with his one good eye. William chuckled at this glimpse of the old Buck, but then Buck said, “Seth pointed out we’re all weak and we all search for the magic thing within us or in the world to give us strength. Even the Indians do that. I used to think that if only I was the best cadet, had the shiniest rifle, then … but there’s no magic in men. Nothing will make me strong on my own. We laugh at the talismans of the Indians—they delude themselves. I was no better. I guess we all have to choose something or some way to live. Ask yourself, Willy, what’s more ludicrous—losing yourself in God or in drink?”

“At least I can experience the effects of whiskey—there’s no trick there—I don’t have to convince myself. It’s clear as day.”

“And what good does it do?” Kenyon asked.

“What? Why does it have to do good? I never said I was on a mission for good. What about fun and doing as you please? Like the Indians used to? I can see why they don’t want what we want for them.”

“So you want to be like the Indians? Blown by the wind, dependent on the government, or out murdering and plundering as they’ve done for generations? Do you want to make slaves of women and beat them to death with shovels like that young Apache did last week?” Kenyon asked.

“Hey, white men have done the same—even improving on some of their savagery,” William said.

“And what makes the Indians attractive to you then?”

“Why should men have to follow rules? Everyone should do what makes them feel good—as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. The Apaches get up and decide to drink or decide to do nothing but have a laugh, or they raid now and again. Didn’t Jesus say something about sharing your stuff anyway and waiting around like a lily or something?”

“There’s something in the Bible about stealing, Willy,” Buck said with a smile.

Why did Buck keep smiling? William wanted to clobber him. “Anyway, people talk about freedom, and that’s all I want.”

Kenyon shook his head. “This freedom you talk about—if the Apache had kept their agreements with the Mexicans or any other tribe in the West, then they’d have some allies. Truth is, their idea of freedom does hurt innocent people.” Kenyon folded a towel as he spoke. “We all know the army can’t defeat the Apaches without help. They’re not equipped. But the Apaches turn on their own as scouts, and they’re free to do it, I suppose. Your freedom has landed you and Buck in the hospital. Your fun caused you to lose Thankful’s money, and you’ve lost work and pay and friendship in enjoying your desires. Would your mother be proud? I’m not.”

“I don’t give a damn if you’re proud or not,” William said.

“Then why have you worked night and day doing splendid art for me?” Kenyon asked. “Why did you so eagerly seek my approval each evening? Why did you stay off drink for a month?”

“I broke my promise to you, and I’m sorry about that …”

“Willy, how many times did your father say the same thing to you?” Buck asked.

Just then the doctor came into the room, kicking a scorpion out of the way. “You scared us, Willy—nearly stopped breathing all together. You’re lucky to be alive. I’ll send word to your parents.”

“No, please don’t.”

“How is Lieutenant Fahy, doctor?” Kenyon asked.

“Not good, I’m afraid. The lieutenant will never walk if he lives. He’s conscious though.”

Buck and William exchanged horrified looks.

“What’s happened to Fahy?” Buck asked.

“Seems the bit of merriment you boys had got the lieutenant shot,” said the veteran doctor.

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Friendship

john-everett-millais-spring-apple-blossoms

Apple Blossoms by John Everett Millais

Ah, friend, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

–Matthew Arnold.