Friday, January 18, 2008

A Journey Back

Newsimg185 ARTHUR WILLIAMS  of Fayston, Vermont is a humanist first and foremost. Teacher, skier, philanthropist,honest politician, active supporter of the arts, I am lucky to have him as a friend.  His wife Hannah who shares these same attributes, delivered this speech for a gathering of the AFS in Paris last fall.  It is people like Arthur and Hannah that allow me to be optimistic about the future. This speech presented here touched my heart.
Journey Back
Thank you Caroline Barjon, Eleanora Golobic, archivist, who has been a great help always, and AFS France for inviting Ned and me here today to talk briefly about our experiences as AFS ambulance drivers with the French Moroccan Mountain Troops in France, Germany and Austria from November 1944 until June 1945, I am not here to tell you anything about war.  I was in it for too brief a period to make any profound statements.  We all know it is horrible and the civilians are the ones who suffer most.  Before I start my journey back, I would like to make a statement about bravery.  No matter what General Patton said, I don’t think there are cowards in any army.  As in life some men and women can tolerate danger better than others, like many in the French underground.  I admire those who scale dangerous mountains or do extreme sports.
  How did I end up driving an ambulance for the American Field Service?  When I was barely 17, I found out, unknown to me, that I had a slight heart murmur that might keep me out of the service and would more than likely keep me from going overseas.  At that time no healthy looking American boy wanted to be out of uniform.  The mood in our country was a lot different than it is today.  I had a father in the army in Africa, a brother in the Marines and another, training for the 10th Mountain Division.  Obviously I was not going to be left behind.  I knew about the Field Service’s life saving work as my uncle and a close cousin drove for the French in 1916.  Also, Evan Thomas and Andrew Gear both wrote very good books about their experiences in Africa as AFS drivers.  I was a junior in high school, and a few former students returned to campus wearing impressive uniforms and telling impressive stories about helping the wounded on the battlefield.  Not being a great student, I thought the entire German Army was less terrifying than my biology teacher, thus I was off to New York to sign up.
I passed my AFS physical, and had my choice either Far East or Near East.  I wasn’t exactly sure which east was which east, but chose the right one!  In late November we sailed for Naples on a British hospital ship, a converted liner.  The crew was Indian and the officers and medical staff were English.  We sailed without escort and the Atlantic was rough at that time of year.  Had we been torpedoed, I doubt if the boats could have been lowered safely.  The food was far from great and there was not a great deal of it so we bribed the mess crew to make us sandwiches at night.  We had the use of the main salon whereas the British medical orderlies were quartered several decks below where they played cards and, I think drank beer, a luxury not available to us.  Ned tells me we celebrated Thanksgiving on the ship, but I don’t think we had turkey.   Several weeks later, we arrived in Naples harbor, which was being strafed, by a single German plane. We spent three or four days in cold dreary Naples then boarded an American hospital ship for Marseilles.  From Marseilles we went by truck to Besancon, headquarters of the 1st French Army where we spent Christmas Day.  As many of you know, the massive German counter attack in the Ardennes took place about a week before Christmas.  Although it was well north of us, American Military Police were stopping soldiers for identification since a number of English speaking German soldiers, wearing American military uniforms, had broken through the lines.  I recall there was a password, if a MP said baseball you would name a well-known team.  We trucked from Besancon to Belfort, picked up our ambulances and encountered a disastrous pile up of military vehicles, including some of ours, on icy roads.
Our next destination was St. Remy where we spent several weeks in the asylum where Van Gogh cut off his ear.  It was freezing inside and out and I was ready to cut off more than my ear to get out of there.  One positive thing, happened, drivers who had mechanical training overhauled each ambulance.  Some had trained in the states before we left.  The same was true for medical training, which was also given, to a small degree, on the British Hospital ship.  We learned how to handle our four-wheel ambulances, checking radiators and double clutching on steep grades.  I understand the winter of 44 was the coldest one in Europe in 50 years, and I was wearing khaki’s with long underwear.
  I think, at St. Remy, we were divided into two sections, one with the Moroccan Mountain Troops and the other with the Algerians.  Since I had a brother with the American 10th Mountain Troops, I was glad to be assigned to the only other, I believe, allied mountain division.  We then headed for Vieux Thann in the Vosges where we were billeted in an aid station, which was a deserted château in the hills just above town.  With my fellow driver (half of the time we drove alone) I got my first taste of war and the Moroccans. I recall, as we climbed the road in a snowstorm without lights, we suddenly came across soldiers wearing heavy American army overcoats leading mules packing weapons.  Some of the men had walking sticks and everything was quiet in the falling snow.  Most of these men, the ones that were still alive, had probably walked this way through Sicily and the Italian mountains where fierce fighting took place.  (Did anyone see a French movie, recently released, about these North African soldiers, Days of Glory?)  There was shelling on the roads around the aid station.  Our windows were covered at night and I don’t think
we had lights or water except for the room where the wounded were treated.
It seems to me that frozen feet, turned black, were as prevalent as wounds.
Last summer my sons and I returned to Vieux Thann and were shown the route up and down the mountains to the hospital in Massevaux.  If correct, this road was dangerous enough in summer much less in winter without lights 62 years ago.
One night, Ned was behind me, my ambulance skidded off the road and was dangling over a cliff.  Attempting to get the wounded out, the driver with me dislocated his shoulder.  Someone had to go way into the back to get the remaining stretchers out and that someone was me, with Ned’s help.  I am glad the snow on the roadside prevented me from seeing what lay below!
  After we left the mountains we worked around Hericourt, Montbeliard, Mulhouse, Colmar and small towns on the Rhine.  There had been fierce battles for Colmar with burned out tanks and trucks lining the roads.  It seems, as though, once we left the mountains the weather turned warmer.
  In our spare time, like schoolboys, we explored abandoned “pillboxes” on the Maginot line. without regard to booby traps. In small graveyards outside of villages, I often saw newly placed markers with rusty helmets on the posts, with the inscription, “Morte Pour La France.”  The smell of recently spread manure on fields soon to be planted, permeated the air.  Spring had come to Alsace.  In April we received over BBC news that President Roosevelt had died.  The French wondered who Harry Truman was.  So did we!   In April we were working an aid station just above the Rhine.  We could hear mortar fire from both sides.  Motorcycle dispatchers would come roaring up from the river to army headquarters.
There was a large bump in the road in front of our station, and we could hear the drivers gun their engines just before they hit the bump.  The cycle would spin out of control and the rider would fight to keep it on the road.  No matter how hard we tried to slow them down nothing worked.
  One warm spring day, I was parked outside the clinic when a makeshift ambulance drew up, the driver, not one of ours, left.  The back was open and what appeared to be a very young soldier was lying there obviously dead.  The sun played on his scholarly face still wearing heavy horn rimmed glasses and an old style French helmet.  He was also wearing what looked like a new wristwatch and the sun reflected on it.  I thought he might have just graduated from high school in a nearby town and was called up.  The watch, I thought, was probably a graduation present from parents or grandparents.  It bothered me that there was no one around to claim him; that he was lying there all alone.
In small villages, civilians were often hit by speeding army vehicles
while trying to cross narrow streets.  I carried young and old alike to
hospitals and some I carried back to die at home because it was too expensive for their families to pick them up at the hospital.   Was our job dangerous?  Certainly not like the Moroccans on patrol or manning machine guns in burned out buildings.  A few drivers we knew were killed in action or otherwise in France.  I don’t think the average enemy soldier targeted ambulances.
  We crossed the Rhine on a pontoon bridge at Lauterbourg, south of Strasbourg with the advancing allied forces.  The German villages were quiet and sad.  There were not many men around.  Even though the
villagers were forced to take us in and often feed us; they were politely friendly and were surprised to see the word American on our shoulder patches.  There were some unfortunate incidents from occupying troops
where discipline broke down, the soldiers were punished. Also Germans were astonished to see men with mules, thinking how, could they defeat their well mechanized army!  The advance was so fast that allied and enemy lines were confused.  Unless the mules walked all day and night, they could not have kept up with the tanks and trucks.  As you may have seen in Ken Burns’ documentary, The War, very young and old men were drafted into the home guard, and pockets of German soldiers were cut off and left behind.  In a similar situation, our medical team came across a German hospital, or aid station filled with sick and wounded.  One of our medical officers asked me to take a load of badly wounded Germans to a hospital still, I believe, in enemy hands.  A German doctor rode up front with me to show me the way and a Moroccan soldier with his rifle rode in back.  As usual, the doctor spoke pretty good English and had relatives in Chicago.  We found the hospital and their orderlies unloaded the wounded and brought them into a very modern operating room.  I noted the surgeons were wearing green hospital gowns; I had only seen white in our hospitals.  I was asked to join the other doctors and nurses for something to eat.  Again, they were curious to see a young American with a French division.  Since this was German territory and the war was still on, I guess I could have been taken prisoner, but what was the point!  They knew the war was about over.
  On leaving, my ambulance became stuck in the heavy mud.  The officer went into a ward and returned with six or seven men in pajamas and ordered them, in the rain, to get us out. They did and with some pride.
On May 7, we were some where in Germany and word came that Germany had surrendered.  I remember passing by what looked like a victory party for French officers; champagne, etc. but they were quite and looked glum.
An officer told me later they were not happy because they knew they were heading for Indochina.  Shortly after that, I was sent to pick up very sick prisoners left in a concentration camp.  They looked exactly like the wretched souls you have seen in countless photographs.
   We headed for our final staging area, at Feldkirch, Austria passing through the lovely Black Forest and Baden Baden with their mineral baths.  I must have stayed in Feldkirch for about three weeks, and then because of an illness in my family, AFS in Paris arranged to get me a crew position on a merchant ship carrying soldiers back to New York.  I really did not want to leave Feldkirch, a beautiful town, where I had met two very pretty girls.  I understand that when I left, Ned replaced me in the affections of the one I was very fond of.  Last year when my sons and I returned to Feldkirch, I traced down the brother of one of the girls who told me that his sister and her friend had both died.  They had been several years younger than me, and it made me very sad to hear they were dead, as I pictured them as I last saw them in Feldkirch 62 years ago.
  All of us had also become very attached to our young Moroccan cook, named Mohammed, of course, who took care of us throughout the war.  One of our drivers brought him back to the states but it didn’t last long.
I think most soldiers are pretty equal if they are well led, well trained, and well equipped.  America and the allied armies won the war because of the massive production of American industry turning out, in a shorter period than this Iraq mess, ships, planes, tanks, trucks, and arms enough to
fight two wars and help supply most of the allied armies; just like our massive production of Blue Jeans, which, after the war served as a great social equalizer between the rich and the poor around the world so everyone could look like a swinger.
I want to thank the American Field Service for letting me take part in what may go down as one of the few just wars and allowing me to help save lives rather that taking them.  Let us hope that what AFS France is doing will help bring these terrible chapters in the world’s history to a close.

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