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AMERICA'S FIRST FROGMANThe Draper Kauffman Story
By Elizabeth K. Bush
NAVAL INSTITUTE PRESSCopyright © 2004 Elizabeth K. Bush
All right reserved.
Early in the morning of 10 May 1940-not long after midnight-Draper Kauffman reported to his job in the French region of Alsace-Lorraine. It was his first day, officially, as an ambulance driver for the French army. The decision to go to France was made without considering the feelings of his immediate family. "STOP HIM IMMEDIATELY!" his mother had cabled his father at sea as soon as she caught wind of Draper's resolve. He was getting embroiled in a war that the United States wanted nothing to do with. But no amount of stern lecturing from Capt. James Laurence "Reggie" Kauffman, USN, could persuade his son to veer from the rocky road down which he was heading. As his mother once said about Draper, "He always says 'Yes dear,' then does exactly what he pleases."
Kauffman's first day as an ambulance driver happened to be the very day that western Europe came apart at the seams. On 10 May German armies invaded Holland, Luxembourg, and Belgium, smashing through what was thought to be the impassable Ardennes Forest toward France. Hitler's actions in May 1940 were the starkest indication yet of his designs on Europe. In 1938 the fuhrer had annexed Austria and invaded Czechoslovakia, managing to justify his actions to France and Britain, which, only twenty years after the Great War and the loss of almost an entire generation of young men, were anxious to maintain peace at any cost. Not until September 1939, when Hitler marched into Poland, with which France and Britain had a treaty, did those countries feel compelled to declare war on Germany. The declaration, however, had no effect on Poland's fate; without armed Allied support that nation quickly succumbed.
An uneasy quiet settled over Europe, an eight-month lull that became known in England and the United States as the phony war; in France, the drole de guerre. Under cover of silence, Hitler was consolidating his gains-plundering resources from the territories he'd invaded or overrun, transporting entire factories with hundreds of workers to Germany, establishing concentration camps, and strengthening his war-making capabilities and his defenses. It is hard to believe today how little of that behind-the-scenes activity got through to the rest of the world, or rather how entrenched that world was in wishful thinking. That seen-no-evil stance had less to do with Hitler's gagged press than with a world grown weary of war and depression.
One of the fuhrer's efforts during the phony war was construction of a series of defenses known as the Siegfried Line. The Siegfried Line lay along the French-German border, almost parallel to France's own defensive Maginot Line. In some places, including Alsace-Lorraine where Draper Kauffman would soon be, the two lines were a mere ten miles apart. The Siegfried Line fooled the French into thinking that Hitler planned to fight a war of fixed defenses. Far from it. Unbeknownst to French military leaders, the fuhrer's intention was to launch a swift, aggressive invasion of France, and to send the bulk of his forces around or over, not through, the Maginot Line.
The Maginot Line was a series of fortifications in the east of France where that country bordered on Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg. This elaborate defensive frontier consisted of six-story underground forts, pillboxes, barracks, hospitals, power stations, miniature railroads, and casements with their guns pointed east toward the potential enemy. The French government had built it at enormous cost after World War I and convinced the French people that it was impregnable. So secure did the French military feel with this snaking steel and concrete colossus that they had cut conscription and neglected to update weaponry-they did not have a single new tank. During the phony war, French army divisions stationed on the Maginot Line made no attempt to shell Germany's portion of the Saar River, which was industrialized and within easy range of their heavy artillery. In fact, the French did little more than probe the Siegfried Line around Saarbrucken, in northeastern France. Captured German soldiers apparently claimed not to know that war had been declared between their country and France-which only confirmed the French army's sense of security.
The problem with the Maginot Line was that it stopped short of the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest to the northwest. That, as events proved, was a fatal miscalculation. On 14 May 1940 German army divisions that had muscled their way through a gap in the Ardennes crossed the River Meuse at Sedan, France, easily outflanking the Maginot Line, while additional army divisions pressed against that line to keep French army units pinned down in the east of France. The divisions that had broken through at Sedan made a swift drive west toward the English Channel. By early June the Germans had routed British, French, and Belgian troops and gained control of northern France. At that point, Hitler abandoned an attempt to cut defending troops off from the sea, husbanding his precious panzers for a drive southward through France, and the routed Allied divisions were evacuated at Dunkirk. With his objective in northern France secured, Hitler's Armies A and B launched their broad attack against points south while Army C continued pressing against the Maginot Line at points east, including where Draper Kauffman was stationed in Alsace-Lorraine, south of Saarbrucken.
On 10 May 1940, as Hitler initiated his opening thrust against western Europe, Kauffman reported for ambulance duty. He was stationed near the town of Sarre Union, about ten miles short of the Maginot Line.
He had arrived there by an unconventional path. Kauffman had graduated from the Naval Academy in 1933 but was refused a commission when he failed to pass the eye exam. He went to work for the U.S. Lines Steamship Company in New York, where he had a good job that he enjoyed-until they sent him as an assistant operations manager to survey their Berlin office in early 1939. There Hitler's huge army and emotional following of thousands struck him as frighteningly ominous. Germany, he had not the slightest doubt, was planning to go to war. When indeed that happened, Kauffman joined the American Volunteer Ambulance Corps because at the time, with isolationist sentiment strong in the United States, it seemed the only way he could play a part in helping to slow Hitler's advance. He arrived in Paris in March and went through ambulance driver training.
On 10 May he volunteered to go to an advance post six miles beyond the Maginot Line, just four miles short of Hitler's Siegfried Line, a no-man's-land between the two lines that was patrolled by a volunteer group from the French army called the Corps Franc. The Corps Franc was an extraordinary collection of elite fighters-"as brave a group as I've ever come across," Kauffman would later write in a rare, twenty-page letter home to the family. At the time his mother and sister were living in California; his father was commanding a squadron of destroyers in the Caribbean. "You were either accepted by the Corps Franc or you weren't accepted," Kauffman went on, "and the two were miles apart." In the horrible weeks that were to follow, as French troops staved off German attacks across the Maginot Line, Kauffman would be inspired by the valor and tenacity exhibited by the men of the Corps Franc. "There wasn't anything they wouldn't do for you," he wrote. "If one member of the patrol was trapped and there were five others, they would attack fifty Germans to try to free the one man who was trapped."
For Draper Kauffman, that first day at his post was truly a baptism by fire. A couple of Corps Franc men came racing up on bicycles exclaiming that they had many men wounded near Frauenberg and requesting an ambulance to go for them. Kauffman volunteered for the duty and picked as the chief stretcher-bearer a man by the name of Gauvoi, who looked the calmest of the would-be volunteers. "I never would have done this if I'd known what it would be like," Kauffman confessed in his letter. "So many shells exploded in the road ahead ... that my only instinct was to drive as fast as possible and I damn near wrecked the car doing it. When we picked up the wounded, the attendant calmly asked me to drive slowly so as not to jolt them. I ... kept below twenty kilometers an hour-though every second on that road it seemed to me increased their chances of really getting killed. After we got them transferred to another ambulance to go back to the hospital, I sat in my driver's seat and started shaking like a leaf." From that moment on, Kauffman understood how an infantryman could freeze, and how a soldier could run away.
While he was collecting himself, several more Corps Franc men came tearing down the road on bicycles and asked him to go again. He wanted to refuse. "I certainly would have if I'd been a Frenchman," he offered candidly, "or an American with Americans, but I couldn't very well disgrace us with them. I'll never again be as scared or feel as sick, but I think I covered it up so they thought I was cheerfully volunteering. The second trip was as bad as the first, with terribly wounded ones to be lifted and carried. Incidentally, both Gauvoi and I got Croix de Guerres for those trips. But more important at the time was my invitation to dinner that night with the Corps Franc."
On the first night at dinner there were 120 volunteers of the Corps Franc-of those only 14 would be alive and uninjured when Hitler's army breached the Maginot Line near Saarbrucken on 16 June. Draper Kauffman took his place among them, struggling to tutoyer. His schoolboy French was barely adequate to the task of the formal vous, and now he was being called upon to address this close-knit group with the familiar tu. He sat between a nineteen-year-old lieutenant named Toine and the fellow who had asked him to drive to the scene of carnage, Marcel. Toine was small, a gentleman of the finest, most sensitive type, and, in spite of his young age, very old school in his courteous manner and courtly bearing. Marcel was a large strapping farmer of twenty-eight, rough in bearing and manners. But their obvious differences mattered not at all. The Marcels and the Toines were brothers in the Corps Franc.
The elaborate dinner ritual struck Kauffman as a scene he might see in a movie. Each man killed since the previous night was solemnly toasted. Next someone read out the names of the wounded and they were toasted. Then the assembly drank to the American in their midst and he was allowed to make the final toast. "Confusion to Hitler and long live France!" The reigning spirit of selflessness was so grand it was contagious, and from that time on it enabled Kauffman to perform his job without caving in to fear.
He received a separate invitation to dinner each night, though he could accept only three more times because he almost never had enough time to sit down to eat. The friendships that these get-togethers nurtured were in one way good, but they made the war and its horrors far more personal and terrible for Kauffman because every time he went to collect the wounded there was at least one in each load who was a friend. "You sincerely call a man a friend in a very short time when things are hot," he wrote in his letter home. "This climaxed one day when I picked Toine off the field with his face half gone, one arm shot to pieces, and his left foot gone. When we got him into the light of the Poste de Secours I almost gave way, and he didn't help any by winking at me with his good eye and squeezing my hand with his good one."
In early June Kauffman was sent to a rear post called Berig, in the French countryside, for some rest and recreation. There he wrote his mother to reassure her:
Today I am feeling like a million dollars! I have had twenty-eight hours' sleep, a shower, and a delicious hot meal, the first in nearly three weeks. I am in a post in the rear getting a rest and fully enjoying it. That shower was the most marvelous thing you could imagine!
Another driver and myself are billeted with a wonderful French peasant family, with lots of milk, bread, butter-oh, all the things we've wanted. This is really R&R. The war is going on all around us but doesn't touch us. There is a large open hospital here where we make only about one trip a day, and that is usually to hospitals farther back, so they are not dangerous at all. The French treat us all like kings. From their soldiers second class to their generals they are all marvelous to us.
You and Dad may have thought the French didn't really need us, but that is most definitely changed. They have needed us badly these last few weeks, and I feel we have saved the lives of many who would have died if we hadn't been here.
One incident I think of. I went out as a stretcher-bearer the other day (the regiment was short of stretcher-bearers) and we picked up a young junior lieutenant, age twenty-two. His leg had been shot away but a quick tourniquet around the stump kept him from bleeding to death. We didn't say a word till we got to the car that had the American flag on it. He then asked in slow, perfect English, "Are you an American?" I said yes and he replied simply, "Thank you so much that you are here,'" and then passed out cold....
I wish I knew what America is thinking now. I have had no news ... since leaving our base. I suppose all stories from this side are labeled propaganda but there are two simple facts for which I can vouch.
One: the Germans frequently and obviously fire on the Red Cross when there is no chance of mistaking it.... We have all begged the directors in Paris to let us take the Red Cross off our cars as well as the American flag. They have agreed to our camouflaging the top and removing the Red Cross there, but they want it kept on the sides-I think from a public relations standpoint.
Two: The French treat German prisoners who are wounded with the greatest care in the world. If I bring in four wounded-two French and two German-they are treated in the order of the seriousness of the wounds and no favoritism shown. I have had German wounded who spoke English and who have told me that they couldn't understand it.... Well, every nation has its ruffians and gangsters, but Germany seems to be a nation of gangsters, when in military uniform anyway.
In Berig, Kauffman grew close to a group of junior doctors, much like American interns, with whom he dined. On 10 June while they were eating together, the president of France came on the radio to announce that Italy had joined Germany in the war.
Excerpted from AMERICA'S FIRST FROGMAN by Elizabeth K. Bush Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth K. Bush. Excerpted by permission.
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