The Liberation of France

Benjamin B. Ferencz

The time finally came for the 115th to shove off for France. The new headquarters company commander was an engineer from New York. He was one of those “seven-week-wonders” who had been rushed through Officer Candidates School to emerge as a Lieutenant. He inspected his company before boarding ship. He took a few of us aside. We were ordered to remain behind. To me he said, “We won’t be needing typists for a while. We’ll call you when we need you.” Those were the exact sentiments expressed by my dear mother when she urged me not to enlist.

Several days passed before I was notified in the holding area that I was to rejoin my outfit. I boarded the crowded landing craft and we zigzagged along the English coastline before starting a dash across the choppy channel heading for France. When we neared the French coast, the boat circled around and around in the turbulent seas. The vessel was navigated by an English sailor. The passengers were a bunch of seasick Americans in full battle gear. When the order to land finally came, the small craft raced toward the shore of what we later learned was “Omaha Beach.” The steel ramp at the bow was dropped into the water’s edge and the men tumbled out. For most, the water came no higher than their knees. For me, it came to my waist.

It so happened that at just about that time, the skies opened up in pouring rain. It was as though the heavens were weeping. The beach was fairly cleared by that time. There were plenty of sunken vessels around, but no bodies visible on the sand or in the water. I learned that the 115th was encamped on top of a ridge overlooking the sea. I made my way up the slippery hillside and reported for duty. I was immediately seized by a friend of mine, a HQ sergeant named “Starchy” North who was in a large hole manning a .50 caliber machine gun. “Boy, am I glad to see you,” he said, “I’ve been manning this (expletive) gun all by myself, and I need help.” So I jumped into the hole next to him, and we peered out together over the surrounding pile of sand that had been dug from the hole. “The Krauts may try a counterattack from the sea,” he said, “Watch out for them. I’m going back into that field to check out the farm houses for snipers.” He left, and I looked at the gun, and I looked at the sea.

Now, I must admit that I had never in my life fired a .50 caliber machine gun. I thought it might be prudent to figure out how it worked. The big bullets were already strung into the breech, and I managed to locate what seemed to be the trigger. I pointed the weapon toward the sea and fired. A fiery arc reached across the ocean and I could see the mark of the tracer bullets hitting the water. I knew that I could defend the mainland if the Germans attacked in a row boat. If their guns could outreach our .50 cal’s, I would be a dead duck. Fortunately, I spotted “Starchy” coming back. He wobbled a bit, but seemed cheery. In his hand he waved the remains of a bottle of Calvados, a local brew that looks like water and acts like rocket fuel. Suddenly, “Starchy” snapped to rigid attention, his heels clicking together, and his body falling like a felled tree, face down into the dirt. I wondered if he had been hit by a sniper’s bullet and was killed. I rolled him over. He was not dead—only dead drunk! The perils of war.

One of the most gratifying experiences of my life was to feel the gratitude and warmth of the French people who were liberated from German occupation by American troops. They cried and cheered when U.S. tanks rolled into town. They raced after every vehicle handing out flowers and wine to every soldier they could touch. In return, the doughboys tossed packs of cigarettes and candies to the welcoming crowds. It was a heartwarming and emotional demonstration of the value of freedom—which Americans as well as others too often take for granted. I have never forgotten it.

An illustration of that spirit can be found in the story of what happened in Luneville, a small city southwest of Paris. General Patton’s tanks had entered the town and the German army had retreated to the nearby woods. Their “Panzers” had a grater range than the American guns and they continued to fire into the town with impunity. I was posted to guard a bridge near the center of town and to stop civilians from trying to cross under enemy fire. Suddenly, a girl of about 20 appeared on a bicycle. I stopped her and warned her that the bridge was under attack and was not passable. Despite shells falling all around, she ignored the danger and tore away, saying she had to get home. By chance, I met her again the next day.

We were billeted in a barrack that had just been evacuated by the German army. Directly across from our Kaserne was a small building that doubled as a school house and residence. The girl taught kindergarten there, and lived with her father, a professor at the University of Nancy. When she passed by my post as a guard at the gate of the Kaserne, I recognized her and scolded her for having run such risks the day before. She apologized and, since I spoke French, she invited me to celebrate “liberation day” with her family.

The following evening, I came as their guest, carrying as many delicacies as I could borrow from the company kitchen. I was puzzled by the large hole that went right through the house. The father explained that as the German army was retreating, he fired at them with an old rusty machine gun he had hidden in the cellar. The “Boche” took a dim view of that and fired back with the artillery shell that missed his head but pierced his home. That explained the unusual ventilation.

“Luneville Liberation Day” was a festive occasion. “Papa” had caught a rabbit and even had two eggs. There were flowers and wine and fruits and my U.S. army rations for the hosts. We sang French songs and offered toasts for the Allied armies. As we neared the end of festivities, the Professor went down to the basement with a shovel. He dug up two boxes. One was filled with French coins. The Germans had ordered all metal to be turned in to be melted down for munitions. The Professor had collected as many coins as he could. Instead of turning them in, he had buried them in his cellar. His act of sabotage cost him his money and might have cost him his life.

The second box contained two bottles of champagne. We went back upstairs and broke open one of the bottles. We drank a toast to the Americans and to the liberation of France. The second bottle, he said, would be put back in the box and returned to the cellar. It would only be opened when, and if, “le petit Benjamin” came back after the war. Of course, I returned and we all shared the last bottle of champagne together. It touched my heart.

Not every story had such a happy ending. I recall the breakout from the beachhead at Normandy after the American army was pinned down for weeks. We had control of the air, but the Germans were strongly dug in at St. Lo, where all roads crossed. No advance would be possible without breaching that strongly fortified barrier. One day, the 115th was ordered to move to the outskirts of St. Lo and be ready to roll. Soon, the sky was darkened by long waves of our “Flying Fortress” bombers as far as the eye could see. The massive bombs fell like heavy hail soaking the city below. Although I must have been several kilometers away, the ground shook so fiercely that I could not stand. We all lay flat and watched as St. Lo was pummeled into ruin. When the order came to “Start rolling!” our trucks and guns could find no road; and no house or building was left standing. The French city of St. Lo was reduced to a pile of rubble. I still wonder how many innocent human beings lay buried beneath those smoldering ruins.

On one of my trips around the countryside, I visited the Chateau at Blois, featured in one of my guidebooks. While admiring the grandeur of the building, I heard shots being fired in the courtyard. I peered around a wall cautiously and saw what appeared to be German soldiers firing rifles toward a field. A closer look revealed that beneath those German helmets were civilian Frenchmen, wearing FFI brassards identifying themselves as members of the resistance French Forces. They had donned helmets taken from Germans and were firing at a distant German artillery encampment. It was obvious, even to me, that the Germans were outside the range of the old rifles held by the courageous resistance fighters. Meanwhile German mortar shells kept exploding in the courtyard where they were hiding and where I was studying the architecture. Fortunately, some American jeeps were patrolling the area. I alerted them to the situation. They signaled the air corps and it didn’t take long before the problem was solved. It was Auf Wiedersehen to the German gunners!