Dateline: Liberated Paris
December 2, 2009 |  by Joseph R.L. Sterne

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By September 1, these precautionary comments terminated. German forces were in retreat in many areas, leaving vast quantities of military equipment, food, and other supplies to rapidly advancing Allied troops. From the front in southern France, Day reported: “Remnants of the German 19th Army, after a painful crossing of the Drome River, limped toward the area southeast of Lyon to join other depleted and motley units. Of the Germans who escaped the debacle, many were on foot, their vehicles lying in a gigantic junk pile. Elsewhere throughout the northern half of the liberated territory, other Germans were also afoot because their vehicles had run out of gas or oil. Abandoned and intact cars and tanks are found in increasing numbers. In one area northeast of Grenoble the farmers disclosed that the Germans took their butter to use as motor lubricant. It is increasingly clear that except for the 19th Army, which retains a measure of cohesion, Germans in this area are in a state of confusion, out of touch with each other, and ignorant of the disposition of the Americans, French regulars, and Maquis troops [French guerrillas].”

War is not only a tale of clashing armies. For Baltimore Sun war correspondents operating largely on their own, it also was a tale of individuals whose singular fate could mean life or death, good or bad luck, courage or cowardice, grand adventure or crushing misfortune. By happenstance, on September 3, 1944, the newspaper published two articles by Day that ran the gamut of human emotion. Filed in different places on different dates, they both arrived in Baltimore in time for the big Sunday edition. First, a tense horror story from Grenoble, a city captured by Allied forces moving north from the Riviera invasion:

“In miserable and rainy twilight, against a wall of a shabby metal works on the outskirts of Grenoble, six young men found guilty six hours earlier of treachery against France died before a firing squad. More than 10,000 citizens of Grenoble, packed in balconies, clinging to roofs and sneering from beneath a black flood of umbrellas that eddied through the streets leading to muddy Champs Bouchayer, cheered as a long line of Maquis sent a single fusillade into the men who, by their own admission, had borne arms as members of the hated militia [of the Vichy government]. The execution was scheduled for 7 o’clock. At three minutes to seven a black windowless van pushed its way through the crowds and through the lines of Maquis who had tommy guns cocked and pistols in hands. Within two minutes of seven, the men, ranging in age from 17 to 22, had walked firmly and rapidly to six L-shaped steel posts standing some six feet out from the wall and spaced 15 feet apart. Five of the men wore dark blue clothing, the other a brown coat and light trousers. One was red-headed, the others dark. They were not blindfolded. All faced the firing squad with open eyes and with their hands tied with new thin rope behind their backs. Precisely at 7 o’clock, without formality, a line of Maquis wearing the ridged helmets of the French army fired. The man on the right end fell first, knees forward and legs buckled under him. The next four men slumped slowly. The last man stood until after the coup de grace, and still remained half standing until the rope was cut away.” One is left to wonder how these young men would have lived their lives if war and German occupation had not intervened.

In the very same issue of The Sun, Day had a long, sprightly interview with Gertrude Stein, the celebrated American writer and conversationalist who had spent the war in obscurity at the foot of a mountain in the lower Alps: “A stocky little woman with close cropped gray hair and lively brown eyes looked happily at the small task force of unarmed, worn, dirty, and unshaven war correspondents. ‘Can you get it through your thick heads how wonderful it is to see American children?’ We told Gertrude Stein how wonderful it was to see her. For the past four years of war the author of Portraits and Prayers, Four Saints in Three Acts, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and other volumes; one of the most brilliant of modern critics; friend and sponsor of Picasso and Hemingway, and proponent of the theory that ‘a rose is a rose,’ that ‘pigeons on the grass are melancholy,’ and that ‘the world is round’ has been living in this out-of-the-way corner. She, Miss Toklas, and a white poodle, Basket II, haven’t been hiding exactly. They simply haven’t let anyone know where they were. The villagers knew, but they didn’t tell.

“At one time, as an eminent American citizen, she was offered a chance to get out. She thought it over and turned it down to stay with France through its abysm from which she never doubted for a moment it would emerge. By staying she got one of the great stories of the war, for it was in the region of cloud-filled valleys and rugged peaks that the Maquis arose in their fullest strength. She started her story in Paris on the day the war began. For almost five years the manuscript was kept in illegible shorthand so it couldn’t be deciphered if it fell into the hands of the Germans during the four times they occupied parts of her house. The Stein book is tentatively titled ‘All the Wars I’ve Known.’ Its opening sentence: ‘I do not know whether to put in the things I do not remember as well as the things I do remember.’”

Back to the war: Lee McCardell once again was writing about how correspondents covered the conflict [Sept. 4, 1944]: “Wars are now moving with such dispatch on such a vast front that scores of newspaper correspondents pouring into Paris from London have only the vaguest notion of what’s going on. If the situation seems confused to newspaper readers at home, they should have the satisfaction of knowing it’s the same way here. Separated by vast distances from the press censors, radio transmission points, and—most important of all —the briefing officers who formerly filled in the war story for them, all are trying frantically to piece the story together.” Holbrook Bradley, 60 years later, told this writer the business of getting his copy to the paper was often uppermost in his mind. Not only were his D-Day dispatches held up—a terrible disappointment. Since he typed on single sheets of paper (no carbons), a lost dispatch was a loss forever. There were no rockets from Baltimore about transmission difficulties. The only message he got from the home office was to keep his head down, an instruction he knew he could ignore.