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How do you convince men to charge across heavily mined beaches into deadly machine-gun fire? Do you appeal to their bonds with their fellow soldiers, their patriotism, their desire to end tyranny and mass murder? Certainly—but if you’re the US Army in 1944, you also try another tack: you dangle the lure of beautiful French women, waiting just on the other side of the wire, ready to reward their liberators in oh so many ways.
That’s not the picture of the Greatest Generation that we’ve been given, but it’s the one Mary Louise Roberts paints to devastating effect in What Soldiers Do. Drawing on an incredible range of sources, including news reports, propaganda and training materials, official planning documents, wartime diaries, and memoirs, Roberts tells the fascinating and troubling story of how the US military command systematically spread—and then exploited—the myth of French women as sexually experienced and available. The resulting chaos—ranging from flagrant public sex with prostitutes to outright rape and rampant venereal disease—horrified the war-weary and demoralized French population. The sexual predation, and the blithe response of the American military leadership, also caused serious friction between the two nations just as they were attempting to settle questions of long-term control over the liberated territories and the restoration of French sovereignty.
While never denying the achievement of D-Day, or the bravery of the soldiers who took part, What Soldiers Do reminds us that history is always more useful—and more interesting—when it is most honest, and when it goes beyond the burnished beauty of nostalgia to grapple with the real lives and real mistakes of the people who lived it.
Soldier, Liberator, Tourist
IN THE WEE HOURS of 6 June 1944, Angèle Levrault, a sixty-year-old schoolmistress from Sainte-Mère-Église, awoke with a start. She rose from her bed and exited the back door to use her outhouse. She heard odd fluttering sounds. What she found in her backyard was stranger still: a man with a face streaked in war paint had landed in her garden and was trying to cut himself free from a parachute. Madame Levrault stood frozen in her nightgown. The man's eyes met hers. He raised his finger to his lips, signaling her to be silent, and then slipped away into the night. Although she did not know it at the time, Madame Levrault had just met Private Robert M. Murphy of the Eighty-Second Airborne Division, one of the first Americans to land in France on D-day. A few hours after their encounter in the garden, thousands of Murphy's countrymen would take their first step onto French land at Omaha and Utah Beach. Thousands of others would take their last step on that sand, if they took a step at all. Before the end of that day, 2,499 Americans would perish on the beaches of Normandy. They would reach the shores of France but die before they met even a single French person. Still others, of course, survived the beaches and fought their way across the north of France. Those soldiers are the subject of this book.
For good reason, the Normandy landings have become a sacred event in the American imagination. Historians, politicians, and filmmakers have celebrated the campaign as a great moment in the history of the Second World War. There is no doubt they are right. But the story, at least as it has been told by American historians, suffers by focusing too narrowly on military strategy. As the new military history has demonstrated, wars cannot be separated from the values and preoccupations of those peoples fighting them. It is also crucial, then, to widen our analytic lens in order to consider the encounter between the American soldier and the French civilian. That relationship began at dawn on the sixth of June in places like Angèle Levrault's garden; it ended in Le Havre some two years later when the last GI got on a boat home.
Because historical narratives focus almost exclusively on the day-to-day heroics of the American GI, they slight the French and leave half the story untold. French civilians appear only at the peripheries of the scene, their roles reduced to inert bystanders or joyous celebrants of liberation. In short, they form nothing more than a landscape against which the Allies fight for freedom. Stephen Ambrose's very popular histories of the Normandy campaign typify this marginalization of the French. In Citizen Soldiers, a history of the army from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, Ambrose mentions the Normans only once, implying that they were collaborationists: "[The landings] came as a shock to the Normans, who had quite accommodated themselves to the German occupation." In Ambrose's three histories of the campaign, he recounts only one incident in which the Normans help the Allies, and several in which they betray the GIs. Otherwise, they appear to be children eager to kiss the Americans' hands, delighted at their liberation, but largely passive and mute. In sum, Ambrose reproduces what he sees as the general GI view of French civilians—as "ungrateful, sullen, lazy and dirty."
One aim of this chapter is to amend that view by revisiting the Normandy campaign as it was seen through French eyes. What was D-day like for the Normans? How did they respond to having their homes, their fields, and their farms turned into a theater of war? Norman accounts of the invasion, recorded in diaries, letters, and memoirs, give us an extraordinarily fresh, vivid account of the months prior to and after the invasion. If Normans appeared to be "ungrateful" and "sullen" to the GIs, as Ambrose believed, they had good reason to be. For them, D-day did not begin on the sixth of June. Rather it started in the fall of 1943, when the Allies initiated preinvasion bombing on northern France. The Normans watched their railways, bridges, workplaces, and homes burn to the ground. For this reason, they dreaded as much as awaited the landings. The war came as a distant thunder, then crashed like an angry storm. As it broke, it produced horrific sights and smells—the rot of animal and human flesh, the stench of death. Normans recounted their encounter with death in a terrible grammar of sounds, sights, smells, and tastes. An estimated 19,890 civilians lost their lives in the Battle of Normandy. During the first two days of the campaign alone, about three thousand were killed—roughly the same number of Allied soldiers killed in that period.
Nevertheless the Normans also felt profound gratitude to the Allies for restoring their freedom. However horrible the squall of war, it eventually delivered Americans, with their funny-looking jeeps, their spectacular boots, and their honey-smelling cigarettes. Every Norman remembers the moment when they saw their first American. "We simply did not believe our eyes," recalled Jacques Perret. "After so many years of occupation, deprivation, alerts, bombings, there were our liberators, 'our Americans.'" Jacques-Alain de Sédouy, a boy of eight in 1944, remembered his first GI in this way: "He could have been a Martian who had fallen out of the sky and we would not have examined him with more curiosity. I could not take my eyes off this man who had come from his distant land in order to liberate France."
Revisiting the campaign from the French side not only gives us a novel, more comprehensive view of the campaign, but also corrects Ambrose's portrayal of French civilians in three crucial ways. First, far from being traitors or passive by-standers, ordinary Normans readily joined the Allies in their struggle against the Germans. Besides taking up arms, civilians provided crucial intelligence about the terrain and the enemy. They also risked their lives to hide fallen parachutists, harbor stranded infantrymen, and care for the wounded. With very few exceptions, they were comrades and fighters. Second, while there is no question that French civilians welcomed their liberators with wonder and gratitude, it is too simple to portray them as happy celebrants of their own liberation. Although Normans felt enormous relief when the Germans at last departed, they were also forced to endure the war in their own backyard. A fundamental contradiction characterized the Allied mission: the GIs were to both conquer and liberate, demolish and reconstruct. As one journalist said of the civilians in Caen, "their liberators are also destroyers." In this part of France, anger, fear, and loss stripped the moment of its bliss. Liberation was a harrowing experience in which happiness had to share the heart with sorrow. Putting Franco-American relations at the center of the story revises our understanding of the costs paid in the Norman campaign. The Americans did not have a monopoly on suffering, nor did they fight alone.
Lastly, a transatlantic approach alters our view of the American experience in Europe. By focusing on encounters between GIs and civilians, we can appreciate the full extent of the soldiers' precarious position in the ETO (European theater of operations). Not only were they warriors fighting for their lives, but also strangers in a strange land. An incident recounted by infantryman John Baxter evokes this sense of alienation. One morning, Baxter's unit drove by convoy through a small village. A French peasant stood and watched them pass through. "We stopped briefly at an intersection and one of our Arkansas soldiers, a man named Mathis, leaned out of the truck and addressed the old man. 'Hey, Mister!,' he barked, 'How far are we from Okalona, Arkansas?' It broke up the convoy." Mathis's joke rested not only on the French man's ignorance of Okalona but also on the idea of the GI as a tourist. It presented the American soldier as a lost traveler trying to find his way home. Unlike tourists to France, the Allies did not expect a warm greeting on Omaha Beach. A good thing, too, as the Germans decidedly did not give them one. But like travelers, they were deposited in an alien landscape, forced to navigate unknown streets, witness unfamiliar customs, and converse with people in a language they did not understand.
The full complexity of the American mission in Europe emerges only when we see the campaign in this way: as an encounter between two allies as well as two enemies. While France was a battlefield, it was also an unknown place, and as such, experienced by GIs in terms not unlike those of a tourist. Such cultural encounters have been overlooked by military historians reluctant to take their eyes off the battlefield. But for millions of GIs, the discovery that a very different world indeed lay beyond the Jersey shore—or San Francisco Bay, for that matter—was central to their war experience. For the GIs, the recognition of cultural difference was unavoidable, astonishing, and often life changing. "From the moment we hit the beaches," wrote infantryman Aramais Hovsepian to his brothers, "you could tell it was a different country. The air even smelled different!" "England was a little like home but France is really a foreign country," recorded Jan Giles in his diary. GI Orval Faubus titled his memoir of France A Faraway Land. With the awareness of difference came the excitement of being in a strange, distant place. Minutes after Charles E. Frohman's company arrived in Normandy, someone pointed out a French street sign. "Everything else was forgotten in a series of awed Oh's and Ah's," remembered Frohman, who was from Columbus, Ohio. "It was the first distinctly French thing we had ever seen. It looked like something out of a fairy tale book. It just didn't look real." Like many visitors to France, the GIs peered over maps, babbled in high school French, wondered why the second floor was called the first floor, and stared in utter bewilderment at bidets.
The recognition of cultural difference, with its lessons of tolerance and humility, became a legacy of the war for a generation of American men, and thus merits closer historical attention. Thinking about the GI as a tourist can also help to explain the arrogance he often felt toward the French. As soldiers, the Americans bore weapons and wielded enormous power. But as tourists, they were dependent on civilians for local knowledge of geography, language, and customs. In this way, they tacked back and forth between authority and dependence, command and vulnerability. Like many tourists, the GIs dealt with their helplessness by making large (and largely unfounded) generalizations about the French. When in their discomfort Americans succumbed to this reflex to categorize, they made sex the defining element of French civilization.
Countless GIs arrived in Normandy with the notion that France was a playground of easy women and loose morals. Once there, they gave candy to children, shook the hands of young men, learned about the woods from peasants, and saved the lives of old women. In other words, they interacted with civilians in complex, very different ways. At the same time, when confronted with a strange culture, the GIs clung to prejudices they already held about the French. In particular, they focused on French behaviors concerning the body, including public nudity, kissing, and love making. By the end of the summer, the French had become—as an entire people—primitive and oversexed. This view of the Gallic race as uncivilized echoed American imperial thinking in the past. Here it would degrade French efforts to restore an autonomous government, as well as justify US military management in matters of health, sanitation, and transportation.
A Surrealist Mixed Spectacle of Deliverance and Death
While everyone in Europe awaited the invasion, what it meant for an individual depended on where he or she happened to be in the summer of 1944. Anne Frank was in hiding in Amsterdam. For her and her family, the "long-awaited liberation" meant hope. "It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again," she wrote in her diary on the sixth of June. Anguish was what Françoise Seligman was feeling in Paris that morning. "A kind of inner panic paralyzed me," the French woman remembered. "If they fail, if they leave, the proof will have been made that France has become an impregnable bastion of Nazi power, and we will never ever be liberated." For the civilians in Normandy, where the battle claimed both homes and human lives, the landings took on yet another meaning. A woman named Yvonne living near Mortain called her day of liberation a "surrealist mixed spectacle of deliverance and death."
The burden of loss was not new on D-day. The invasion had created a reason for the French to endure the weary days of scarcity, humiliation, and deprivation. At the same time, for months before the landings, Allied bombardment had wreaked havoc with Norman lives. Military planners had launched a bombing campaign the previous fall to prevent the Nazis from moving troops and supplies to the front in the opening weeks of the Normandy campaign. So as not to betray the location of the Allied landings, bombing occurred over all of France, with the targeting of bridges, roads, and railways as well as oil depots and other German installations. In the year 1944 alone, 503,000 tons of bombs fell on France, and 35,317 civilians were killed. The populations of Nantes, Cambrai, Saint-Étienne, Caen, and Rouen all suffered heavy casualties, with hundreds or thousands reported dead or wounded. A bombardment of B-17s on a train in which resistance member Jean Collet was traveling appeared to him as a "strange ballet of death: you saw the bombs unleashed from the plane and falling in your direction. Then they disappeared from view due to their rapidity of speed. Then one instant after a terrifying whistle they would explode in a dreadful crash. Meanwhile we were flattened against the ground to avoid the explosions." Civilians suffered the devastation of homes, workplaces, and farms. As a result, many felt more fear than hope about the coming invasion. "The landings are both yearned and dreaded," wrote a Caen prefect in early 1944, "one hopes for a decisive victory while also making a selfish wish that it won't happen where one lives."
It was only human to want the Allies to come—only somewhere else. But specific circumstances also aggravated fear and resentment. For one, the Nazis chose to use bombardment like a hammer to nail in anti-Allied feeling. In widely disseminated handbills and other forms of propaganda, the Germans claimed that the United States had a "Machiavellian plan," which was to take over the French Empire, destroy France, and colonize Europe itself. (See figure 1.1.) Because they could kindle anti-Allied feeling with the destruction caused by the bombing, the Nazis provided neither a warning system nor a temporary shelter for the Normans. To counter such propaganda, the Allies air-dropped leaflets reassuring civilians. "We know that these bombardments add to the suffering of certain among you. We do not pretend to ignore that," conceded one brochure. "Move away as much as possible from ironworks, railway stations, junctions, train depots, repair shops." The warnings were considered to be earnest but pointless as civilians had no choice but to work and live around strategic targets.
A second major issue was imprecision in bombing. The "flying fortress" B-17 bomber—the pride of the American air force—provoked a clenched French fist for missing its target so often. The Normans considered the British to be superior to the Americans in precision bombing. As early as October 1943, the Gaullist resistance organ CFLN (Comité français de la libération nationale) reported that the French were sick "of accumulating ruins and deaths without results." While some civilians found comfort in the French adage that to make an omelet, you have to break eggs, others wondered, "why was it necessary to break so many?" Nor did civilians perceive any rational plan, according to the CFLN. Bridges were destroyed several times over in a period of days, then left alone for months, so that the Germans could rebuild them. The bombings were "barbarian," and they should be stopped. In their reports on public opinion, the CFLN claimed civilians believed Nazi warnings concerning American imperial ambitions. Besides economic greed, the Americans were guilty of harshness in the Versailles treaty, indifference to German rearmament in the 1930s, slowness in entering the war, and collaboration with Vichy official Admiral Darlan in North Africa. Even the delay in the invasion became a kind of "treason."
Excerpted from WHAT SOLDIERS DO by Mary Louise Roberts. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Part One: Romance
Chapter One: Soldier, Liberator, Tourist
Chapter Two: The Myth of the Manly GI
Chapter Three: Masters in Their House
Part Two: Prostitution
Chapter Four: Amerilots and Harlots
Chapter Five: The Silver Foxhole
Chapter Six: Dangerous Indiscretions
Part Three: Rape
Chapter Seven: The Innocent Suffer
Chapter Eight: Black Terror on the Bocage
Conclusion: Two Victory Days