The Interpreter

The Interpreter

by Alice Yaeger Kaplan
     
 

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No story of World War II is more triumphant than the liberation of France, made famous in countless photos of Parisians waving American flags and kissing GIs, as columns of troops paraded down the Champs Élysées. Yet liberation is a messy, complex affair, in which cultural understanding can be as elusive as the search for justice by both the liberators and

Overview

No story of World War II is more triumphant than the liberation of France, made famous in countless photos of Parisians waving American flags and kissing GIs, as columns of troops paraded down the Champs Élysées. Yet liberation is a messy, complex affair, in which cultural understanding can be as elusive as the search for justice by both the liberators and the liberated. Occupying powers import their own injustices, and often even magnify them, away from the prying eyes of home.
One of the least-known stories of the American liberation of France, from 1944 to 1946, is also one of the ugliest and least understood chapters in the history of Jim Crow. The first man to grapple with this failure of justice was an eyewitness: the interpreter Louis Guilloux. Now, in The Interpreter, prize-winning author Alice Kaplan combines extraordinary research and brilliant writing to recover the story both as Guilloux first saw it, and as it still haunts us today.
When the Americans helped to free Brittany in the summer of 1944, they were determined to treat the French differently than had the Nazi occupiers of the previous four years. Crimes committed against the locals were not to be tolerated. General Patton issued an order that any accused criminals would be tried by court-martial and that severe sentences, including the death penalty, would be imposed for the crime of rape. Mostly represented among service troops, African Americans made up a small fraction of the Army. Yet they were tried for the majority of capital cases, and they were found guilty with devastating frequency: 55 of 70 men executed by the Army in Europe were African American -- or 79 percent, in an Army that was only 8.5 percent black.
Alice Kaplan's towering achievement in The Interpreter is to recall this outrage through a single, very human story. Louis Guilloux was one of France's most prominent novelists even before he was asked to act as an interpreter at a few courts-martial. Through his eyes, Kaplan narrates two mirror-image trials and introduces us to the men and women in the courtrooms. James Hendricks fired a shot through a door, after many drinks, and killed a man. George Whittington shot and killed a man in an open courtyard, after an argument and many drinks. Hendricks was black. Whittington was white. Both were court-martialed by the Army VIII Corps and tried in the same room, with some of the same officers participating. Yet the outcomes could not have been more different.
Guilloux instinctively liked the Americans with whom he worked, but he could not get over seeing African Americans condemned to hang, Hendricks among them, while whites went free. He wrote about what he had observed in his diary, and years later in a novel. Other witnesses have survived to talk to Kaplan in person.
In Kaplan's hands, the two crimes and trials are searing events. The lawyers, judges, and accused are all sympathetic, their actions understandable. Yet despite their best intentions, heartbreak and injustice result. In an epilogue, Kaplan introduces us to the family of James Hendricks, who were never informed of his fate, and who still hope that his remains will be transferred back home. James Hendricks rests, with 95 other men, in a U.S. military cemetery in France, filled with anonymous graves.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Less than 9% of American soldiers in Europe during WWII were African-American, but 55 out of 70 soldiers executed for crimes against civilians were black. That's prima facie evidence of racial injustice, but in this absorbing study historian Kaplan (whose The Collaborator won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2001) digs beneath the statistics to explore how judicial bias operated on a practical level. She examines two court-martial cases held in France: James Hendricks, a black private hanged for killing a French farmer, and George Whittington, a white captain acquitted, on grounds of self-defense, of murdering a French commando. Both men apparently did kill their victims--and in Kaplan's view the incidents were the comparable doings of "two trigger-happy drunken soldiers"--but vastly different prejudices and privileges decided the defendants' fates. Hendricks was a truck driver in a segregated army who seemed, Kaplan contends, to embody his all-white jury's assumptions about black criminality, while Whittington was a well-connected officer and a decorated combat hero who was the picture of responsible white manhood. Kaplan supplements her own research with the perceptions of Louis Guilloux, a French intellectual who was an interpreter on both cases and wrote a novel about them. The result is a nuanced historical account that resonates with today's controversies over race and capital punishment (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Kaplan (romance studies, literature, & history, Duke Univ.; The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach) has written a brilliant account of the trials of two American soldiers accused of murdering French citizens in the waning days of World War II. One of the accused soldiers, a black man named James Hendricks, was sentenced to death, while the other, George Whittington, a white who had been proclaimed a war hero, was acquitted. French political novelist Louis Guilloux served as an interpreter at these trials, and Kaplan draws from Guilloux's diaries as well as from a novel he based upon the trials as important sources for this multifaceted work. Kaplan studies the two cases as symbols of racial prejudice, noting that of the 70 American soldiers executed for such crimes in World War II Europe, 55 were African American, although they made up only 8.5 percent of the armed forces. She also weaves in brief interviews with relatives of Hendricks and of the French man he was convicted of killing. Inventive, moving, and beautifully written, this is a major contribution to investigative history. Highly recommended.-Anthony Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This elegantly written, solidly researched, articulate history is well suited for students who want to understand the tragedy of America's racial past. In the World War II European Theater, 55 of the 70 American servicemen executed for capital crimes were black-in an army less than 9 percent African American. This racial outrage is Kaplan's theme, and she presents the story through the diaries and novels of Louis Guilloux, a French writer and high intellectual who served as an interpreter for the U.S. army while it crossed France on the way to defeating the German army in its homeland. Guilloux wrote in his diary soon after the hanging of a black private first class (James Hendricks) for murdering a French farmer (the crime should have been deemed "manslaughter," which did not demand execution) and attempting to rape the farmer's wife. Having witnessed racial bias in many trials, Guilloux contrasted Hendricks's inept defense with the polished one of a white captain (George Whittington) who murdered a French underground soldier, yet was acquitted. This moving account belongs in most collections.-Alan Gropman, National Defense University, Washington, DC Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Justice for all? Not in the Jim Crow U.S. Army of WWII, as a French civilian discovered, to his horror. Louis Guilloux, one of France's leading novelists in the 1930s, prided himself on his knowledge of Russian literature, especially that of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The authors' ironic sense of what happens when the law is badly served came to the fore when, as Kaplan (French/Duke Univ.; The Collaborator, 2000) documents, Guilloux was hired as an interpreter for and intermediary between the newly liberated people of Brittany and the Third Army under George S. Patton, who voiced concern for the "increasing number of crimes against French civilians which are being committed within the Army, particularly by service troops." By service troops, Patton meant black GIs attached to quartermaster, ordnance and transportation companies behind the lines, and he warned that some charges, including rape, would carry the death penalty. Only hours after Patton's warning was issued, a black GI named James Hendricks went off after a drinking bout and allegedly killed a French civilian and sexually assaulted the dead man's wife; after a trial in which Guilloux served as interpreter, Hendricks was sentenced to die and was publicly hanged, though his family in North Carolina were told only that he died as a result of misconduct. Guilloux discerned a pattern: "The guilty were always black," he noted, "so much so that even the stupidest of men would have ended up asking himself how it was possible that there be so much crime on one side, and so much virtue on the other." As Kaplan demonstrates, that virtue was illusory: In one case that she closely documents, a white American officer murdered an Austrianattached to Free French forces but was readily acquitted, while black soldiers-including civil-rights martyr Emmett Till's father-were executed for capital crimes, making up 55 of the 70 Americans thus killed in Europe from 1943 to 1946. Kaplan illuminates some abhorrent recent history that the Army would likely prefer to forget.
Boston Globe

“Impressive…The very precision and extent of her research suggest an author whose dedication to her theme amounts to much more than an intent to document her acquaintance and proper use of archival sources. This is an extraordinary book.”—John Lukacs, Boston Globe

— John Lukacs

Los Angeles Times

“American racism could become deadly for black soldiers on the front. . . . The Interpreter reminds us of this sad component of a heroic chapter in American military history.”

— Michael S. Roth

Minneapolis Star Tribune
“With elegance and lucidity, Kaplan revisits these two trials and reveals an appallingly separate and unequal wartime U.S. military justice system.”

Modern & Contemporary France

"A highly readable introduction to the underside of Allied/French relations at the Liberation."

— Hilary Footitt

Times Literary Supplement

“Compelling. . . . [Kaplan] manages to weave a human story. . . . The two cases are so very different, however, that the conclusions Kaplan reaches appear somewhat tenuous.”

— Jon Latimer

Boston Globe - John Lukacs
“Impressive…The very precision and extent of her research suggest an author whose dedication to her theme amounts to much more than an intent to document her acquaintance and proper use of archival sources. This is an extraordinary book.”—John Lukacs, Boston Globe
Los Angeles Times - Michael S. Roth
“American racism could become deadly for black soldiers on the front. . . . The Interpreter reminds us of this sad component of a heroic chapter in American military history.”

Modern & Contemporary France - Hilary Footitt
"A highly readable introduction to the underside of Allied/French relations at the Liberation."
Times Literary Supplement - Jon Latimer
“Compelling. . . . [Kaplan] manages to weave a human story. . . . The two cases are so very different, however, that the conclusions Kaplan reaches appear somewhat tenuous.”
Military History - Alan M. Osur
"A fascinating analysis of soldiers, lawyers, commanders, and racial conditions in the Brittany area of France after the Normandy invasion. . . . Kaplan researches and writes well in creating a powerful book."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780743274814
Publisher:
Free Press
Publication date:
09/12/2005
Sold by:
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One: Plumaudan

At dawn on November 24, 1944, the day after Thanksgiving, a two-and-a-half-ton American Army truck made its way from the Disciplinary Center at Le Mans to Plumaudan, Brittany. Its destination: an abandoned château down the road from the village church. The Army had chosen one of Plumaudan's only imposing structures for the ceremony. Château la Vallée was a fourteenth-century manor house, deserted for years, with rickety stone walls and gaping holes where windows had been, a round tower, a lower square building facing the road into the village, and a courtyard the size of a baseball field.

There in the courtyard, a group of Military Police unloaded their kit: large pieces of wood, slats, steps, a crossbar for the rope. The sky over Plumaudan was relentlessly gray that Friday morning and it looked like it might never stop raining. There was a wet chill in the air, the kind that goes straight to your bones -- a prelude to the coming winter, so bitter cold it would freeze the rivers.

The villagers awoke to the sounds of hammering. The mayor had received his instructions two weeks earlier. The citizens of Plumaudan were to be informed, but official attendance should be limited to authorities designated by the American Army. No photographs could be taken, the Americans had said, and the local press was to omit the name of the condemned man or his unit from any of its articles.

Thirty American soldiers had also received instructions. From units stationed all over Brittany and Normandy, from Caen to Morlaix, they were ordered to leave their posts for one day of temporary duty in a village located seven miles southwest of Dinan. They reported that Friday morning to the Commanding Officer, Seine Disciplinary Training Center. He arranged them in the courtyard, designating some as "official witnesses," others as "authorized spectators." It was only then that they learned what their duty was.

In one hour, an American soldier was going to hang. His name was James E. Hendricks. He was a black GI from a quartermaster battalion that had camped in a field in Le Percoul, a tiny farming hamlet up the hill from Plumaudan, back in August, only days after the town was liberated from the Nazis.

The soldiers who had been brought to observe knew little about the crime except that Hendricks had killed a local peasant. A court-martial had found him guilty and sentenced him to hang by the neck until dead. But they all knew the policy: GIs who committed crimes against French civilians were punished in the community where the crime occurred.

At 10:59 A.M., a cargo truck with its white U.S. ARMY stencil and flapping canvas top arrived in the courtyard, delivering the condemned man. General Prisoner James Hendricks was escorted by a procession of two guards and four officers to the platform on the gallows.

Hendricks was twenty-one years old, with round cheeks, gentle eyes, and dark brown skin that stood out next to his guards' ruddy white faces. He wore his uniform, but his jacket had been stripped bare of the modest insignia that identified him as a private first class in the quartermaster battalion. He had killed Victor Bignon, a decorated World War I veteran and a respected farmer who sat on the Plumaudan town council. Madame Bignon and her daughter had kept to themselves since the trial, and rumors abounded in the village about what happened to them the night of the crime.

James Hendricks had been confined to the guardhouse in Saint-Vougay, in the western part of Brittany, since his sentencing. His closest contact there was with Lt. Robert Saunders, one of the Army's few black Baptist chaplains. The task of preparing James Hendricks to die was one of the most difficult of Saunders's Army career. Back in 1943, he had been attached to the same quartermaster battalion as Hendricks at Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi, a training camp for black GIs. The poor conditions at Camp Van Dorn had so appalled the forty-year-old chaplain that he tried to resign his commission. He understood, better than anyone, what Hendricks's life had been like since he was drafted into the segregated Army. At Saint-Vougay the two men had prayed together on Thanksgiving. Now, on the gallows at Plumaudan, they were still side by side.

Saunders was not the only black man at Plumaudan on November 24. Three African American enlisted men from service units other than Hendricks's had been ordered to attend the ceremony. It was lip service to the so-called "separate but equal" policy of Army segregation, which stipulated in the memorandum on hangings that there were to be black witnesses present along with the whites.

Hendricks's own Army buddies were spared the gruesome privilege of seeing their comrade hang. The 3326th Quartermaster Truck Company, which had played a key role in Brittany by transporting the supplies crucial for winning the Brest campaign, had moved on to Belgium and Holland. With them was Hendricks's commanding officer, Lt. Donald Tucker, who had testified in court to the young man's fine behavior before the shooting. Hendricks's defense counsel, and two officers from the court-martial who had requested that his death sentence be commuted to life in prison, were also in Belgium, en route to Germany.

After Hendricks's feet were bound, the ceremony proper began. The commandant asked him the requisite question:

"Do you have a last statement to make before the order directing your execution is carried out?"

"No, sir."

Chaplain Saunders began to recite the Twenty-third Psalm: "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul..."

The commandant interrupted the verse; it was time for Saunders to ask Hendricks his own official question, as dictated by the strict protocol of the hanging memorandum.

"Do you have a statement to make to me as Chaplain?"

"Thank you for what you've did for me," James Hendricks answered. "Tell all the boys not to do what I did."

Amidst the carnage of World War II, the spectacle at Plumaudan was a minor incident. Only a dozen men had been at James Hendricks's trial. The crowd that came to watch him hang was small. Once they were gone, who would remember what he did, what happened to him, or what it meant? Ordinary crimes such as his are not part of the story of D-Day or the legacy of the Greatest Generation. They seem destined to fade in memory, then disappear forever. Except that one man could not forget. He was a Frenchman and writer named Louis Guilloux.

Guilloux was not at the ceremony on that rainy November day, but he knew more about Hendricks's crime and punishment than anyone at Plumaudan. He had attended James Hendricks's court-martial as an interpreter, translating the testimony of the French civilian witnesses into English for the Americans. He had witnessed many acts of war and occupation -- cowardly acts and heroic ones -- but these American military trials haunted him for decades. He remembered Hendricks's story in all its details.

There were a few things people always liked to say about Louis Guilloux. He had a perfect ear for language, and a perfect sense of justice. His ear for language came through in the dialogue he wrote, and in his ability to translate. He spoke English beautifully, though he had only been in England once, as a boy.

His sense of justice was just as sharp. It didn't have to do with ideology, but with a kind of lucidity about the world, about what mattered, what was fair and unfair. When Guilloux sensed an injustice, he wouldn't let it rest. His friends still remember him, cradling a pipe in his left hand, tilting his head, his eyes sparkling with discernment. He didn't care if you agreed with him or not. He liked to ask uncomfortable questions, and he wasn't satisfied until he understood the answers, in all their complexity.

After a month working for military justice in the U.S. Army, Louis Guilloux began to sense that something was very wrong: "The guilty were always black," he mused, "so much so that even the stupidest of men would have ended up asking himself how it was possible that there be so much crime on one side, and so much virtue on the other."

Postwar Army statistics confirm Guilloux's intuition. In an After Action Report, the Judge Advocate General's Department revealed that seventy men were executed for capital crimes in the European Theater of Operations between 1943 and 1946. Fifty-five of them were African Americans. That's 79 percent in an Army that was only 8.5 percent black.

Guilloux thought about it for twenty years, then he began to write. He had served as interpreter in four cases. He had seen six black GIs condemned to life in prison for rape and two more black GIs sentenced to hang for rape and murder. In his final trial, a white officer, on trial for murder, was acquitted. It took him twelve years of work and as many drafts to turn the memories of his time with the Americans into a novel. He concentrated on the trial of the black private James Hendricks, who was condemned to hang at Plumaudan, and the white officer George Whittington, whom the Army found innocent.

Although he wrote in French, Guilloux was always an interpreter at heart. He wanted the language and spirit of the GIs to be central to his story, so he gave his book a title in American English. He called it OK, Joe.

Copyright © 2005 by Alice Kaplan

Meet the Author

Alice Kaplan is the Lehrman Professor of Romance Studies and Professor of Literature and History at Duke University. She is the author of French Lessons and The Collaborator and the translator of OK, Joe, all published by the University of Chicago Press. Her books have been twice nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards, once for the National Book Award, and she is a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

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