American GIs and the French women they married

THE D-Day landings and battle to liberate France saw a connection grow between American troops and the local French people.

For some that developed into love and marriage, connecting the two sides of the Atlantic, and author Hilary Kaiser has worked to document many of these stories in her book WWII Voices: American GIs and the French Women Who Married Them.

Here Hilary answers some questions about her work and features two extracts recounting how love flourished during war.

Craig McGinty: How did you find yourself as an American in Paris?

Hilary Kaiser: I came to France to live for the first time when I was 15 because my father had a three-year assignment in Paris. I moved away but later returned as an adult and married a Frenchman, to whom I was married for 30 years and with whom I had three sons.

America-gisDuring that time, we lived in a small town in the Paris suburbs, and I was very involved with the local French community. But I also joined a women’s club in Paris for American wives of Frenchmen because it was very active in advising on bilingualism, offering English-language play groups and activities for our children, and promoting our rights as U.S. citizens living abroad.

After my divorce and when my sons were grown, I moved into the heart of Paris to be nearer cultural activities. I also decided to join other English-speaking groups, of which there are many, in the French capital.

Despite the fact that I’m very active now in the American community of Paris, I’ve never really considered myself ‘an American in Paris’ because I am a dual citizen of both France (I acquired French citizenship through marriage) and the United States and am also integrated into French society. However, I am proud of my American roots and now spend part of the year in France and part of the year in my native California.

What was the inspiration behind the book?

My ebook and paperback WWII Voices: American GIs and the French Women Who Married Them is a, combined, rendition of my two previous books Veteran Recall and French War Brides that I wanted to make available to a wider audience.

I was fortunate enough to be introduced twenty years ago to American veterans living in Paris and to interview them. Some of the veterans also shared their letters and poems with me and granted me permission to publish them.

As for the French war brides, they were the subject of an oral history project I conducted ten years ago that was complemented by archival research both in France and the United States.

What discoveries did you make, both in the people you interviewed and within yourself, whilst working on the book?

Interviewing these elderly people and writing about them was very rewarding. I learned first-hand about the veterans’ experiences during the war and about how the French women met and married their husbands. Like other baby boomers, I look back on the WWII years, try to understand what it was like, and marvel at some of the events that occurred and the decisions that were made.

KurtzAlso, as a Franco-American, I found that the experiences of the French women who married Americans and were obliged to adapt to a new life in the the 1940s mirror, to a certain extent,the experience I had marrying a Frenchman and moving to France in the late 1960s.

Extracts from WWII Voices: American GIs and the French Women Who Married Them

From ‘The News Broadcaster’
About three weeks after the landings, we were on our way across the Channel. We landed at Omaha Beach on June 26. I was attached to the Psychological War Division. […]

I had a driver and a sound truck. My main job was to prepare a short news program in French on the progress of the war from the BBC or APSIE broadcasts. Then I’d go onto the public squares of towns and villages that had recently been liberated and broadcast from the truck. I’d also liven up the program by playing American jazz, dance bands and military marches.

There’d sometimes be hundreds of people who’d come out to listen to me. They’d been deprived of their radio receivers, the T.S.F., under the Germans, and a lot of people still didn’t have electricity. I’d start playing music to attract them, then read the latest news bulletins, followed by some more music. We’d talk, too. Everywhere people were warm and hospitable. Relations were excellent between the American troops and the inhabitants.

I remember attending four Bastille Day celebrations in different towns on July 14th. People wept for joy upon hearing the Marseillaise for the first time in four years. There were American military bands everywhere. I saw little girls wearing dresses made from parachutes. What hospitality! We were spoiled with Armagnac, cognac, Madeira, red wine and cider.

My work on the truck wasn’t easy. I covered more than 3,000 miles of territory in eight weeks of constant travelling. We bumped about on dusty roads. But the countryside was beautiful, and everywhere people waved at us. I made a lot of friends among the farmers. I’d sometimes give them a chocolate bar or two and come back with half a dozen fresh eggs.

I remember going to St. Lô. It’s located in a hollow, with hills on both sides. Before it was liberated, the Germans used to bomb from one side and the Americans from the other. Then one morning we heard ‘St. Lô is freed’, so we went in. There was nothing left, not even the cathedral. Fortunately, most of the inhabitants had left the town. There was absolutely nobody in the streets, and the atmosphere was eerie. We drove through St. Lô in the morning with the sun shining and then again at night with the moonlight on it. It was really a horrifying sight.

LiskaIn August, another man from the Psychological War Division and I were named to bring out a French news sheet, which we distributed in all the towns we visited. We called it La Guerre au Jour le Jour, which means The War Day by Day. I might mention we worked very closely with the Civil Affairs Officers of the U.S. Army in many of these towns.

I was often invited for dinner at people’s homes. I remember in Granville a French high school English teacher, a widower, invited me and my driver for a fantastic meal. He brought out three bottles of Bordeaux wine, two white and one red, two bottles of champagne cider, a good Calvados and a bottle of Armagnac, which he opened just for me. My driver was a boy from the U.S. south and belonged to a religious group which forbade the consumption of alcoholic beverages. How unhappy the poor English teacher was every time the boy refused to drink!

On one drive along the coast near Mont St. Michel, I remember passing Eisenhower’s jeep.

Then on August 18 I received a military order to leave for Paris. My job informing the civilian population was over. Riding in convoy we got as far as Chartres, when the truck broke down because the driver had forgotten to put in oil! I was really impressed: The army was so well-equipped that within two or three hours a new engine was put in and we were off again. While I was waiting, I remember seeing Chartres Cathedral without any stained-glass windows. Apparently, they’d been taken down for safety reasons. It was extraordinary to see the Cathedral with transparent glass. You could see all the statues inside.

On the night of August 24, I remember sleeping inside a barn in Fontainebleau with some French soldiers. They were of the LeClerc division and were off to liberate Paris the next day. While there, I witnessed an unforgettable scene: A small French boy of about ten presented the French soldiers with a skinned rabbit and a bottle of red wine. The soldiers made a wood fire, cut up the rabbit and cooked it in the wine over a fire, in one of their helmets!

This was in fact just one more use of our helmets. We wore them during the day for protection, of course. During the night we used them as pee-pots, and in the morning, after rinsing them, we filled them with hot water and used them for shaving.

The next day we approached the outskirts of Paris. By that time I was riding in a jeep and carrying a rifle, as there were still snipers everywhere. Paris was liberated during the day, and we were given orders to go in about 9 or 10 o’clock at night. We drove past the Opera and were let out in front of the Hotel Scribe. It was about two in the morning.[…]

NicoleLe Petit Rat de l’Opera
When I was about eight, we moved to Paris from Normandy because I was studying at the Opéra National de Paris. I was what you call un petit rat de l’Opéra. I don’t know what you call it in English, maybe something like ‘a little ballet-girl’. The Opéra trained me to become a ballet dancer in the corps de ballet.[…]

In May 1940, when the Germans invaded France, the Opéra let us go. It closed down, not knowing how long the war would last. My mother, my sister and I fled Paris with many other Parisians and went to a place called Murat. That was the time of the terrible exodus to the countryside. Papa wasn’t with us. He’d been called up as a reserve officer and was fighting in the north.

Maman, my sister and I came back a few months later to a Paris that was occupied by the Germans. The Opéra opened up again, and we were now dancing for German soldiers in the audience. Nothing really changed. The Germans were in the theatre, and we were on stage. But I remember looking out and seeing all those green uniforms. An artist has to do what she has to do, don’t you think? We dancers danced, and the singers sang. It was like the butchers who had to sell their meat.

I remember we didn’t have enough to eat during the war. It was horrible. We had black bread. We didn’t have sugar, so there was a sort of sugar substitute. We had to eat this vegetable called a rutabaga. It’s a funny yellow colour, looks a bit like a big turnip, and isn’t very good. There was a lot of ersatz, then. That’s a German word for what’s not natural. What else was there? Oh, there were black noodles, noodles I called nouilles à rien, ‘noodles with nothing’. Why? Because they weren’t noodles à la crème, with cream, or au beurre, with butter. They were noodles with nothing, but they were still better than nothing at all.

During the occupation there was an abbot, Abbé Ménardais, who was like a guardian angel to us. He was a country priest from Longville, a village in Normandy or Brittany. He was interested in ballet and theatre, and during the summer, he converted his house in the country into a sort of pension, or boarding house, for us dancers to come to during our month off; that’s where I got to eat fruit and vegetables.

The Abbé Ménardais was extraordinary during the war. He used to come to the Opera House hiding eggs, meat and other food under his cassock and distribute them to us like Santa Claus. He was quite a character. He even hid an allied aviator during the war and later received recognition for that. He was very well-known among the dancers of my generation; we all loved him. In fact, the Abbé was the priest I asked to marry me later on. And after our wedding, we had a ceremony for him at his church in Longville during which my GI husband and his friend pinned a medal on him to thank him for his bravery during the war.

After the liberation of France, my poor father was sent back to us by the French army. He died of cancer at home before Germany capitulated in May 1945. Papa suffered a lot because an army doctor hadn’t recognized he had cancer and had mistakenly operated on him for appendicitis. After Papa’s death, later when the war was over, the army paid Maman compensation for this operation and a small war pension.

I met Dan, the American GI who would become my husband, during the summer of 1945. The Opera had given us dancers a month of vacation, so my sister and I were spending a week in Savoy, on Lake Annecy, in a town called Talloires. We’d rented a small room in a pension in town, but every day we’d walk down to the lake and go to the beach.

It was near a very famous hotel-restaurant—it may have been the Hotel Abbaye—that the American army had requisitioned as a rest camp for its soldiers. The Americans would go to the beach, and that’s where we met. The soldiers would buy my sister and me a drink, and we’d talk in pidgin English and pidgin French. There wasn’t much to do there, but I may have gone dancing once or twice.

I was very impressed by the Americans. They were our libérateurs. They’d saved us. When I met the American soldiers, I was 25, but I didn’t have much experience with men because of the war and because I was so absorbed in la dance. Going out with those GI’s opened my mind and helped me develop. I got to know what I liked or didn’t like in men and what their good and bad points were […]

Hilary-kaiserHilary Kaiser is a cross-cultural trainer, a former associate professor and researcher, who has also published various articles in academic journals and the press.

Categorised as Books

By Craig McGinty

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One comment

  1. As a post war baby from a GI dad (Utah Beach June 6th) and a French Mum I heard so many great stories of those hard and glorious days. Since my father took so many photos I was able to enjoy it more. I was delighted when my son interviewed my father for a term paper at school and really got the best story 60 years later. Both my parents went to the States to live but returned to France because they had great memories of a time when things weren’t that bad apart from whizzing bullets. Anyway, look forward to reading what other men & women experienced in a similar situation.

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