When 'Something Amazing Happened' in Paris
“They have come! The Americans are here!” Seventy years ago, August 25 (D-Day+80), Paris was liberated by the American 4th Infantry Division. Ike had planned to bypass Paris; liberation was an afterthought. As American and French liberators entered the city from opposite sides, Parisians poured into the streets. Vichy socialist snipers fired into the crowd but were quickly silenced by infantry return fire. The elated Parisians erupted into a citywide party to greet the Americans with flowers, kisses, and wine. Paris was again the City of Light.
Chicago journalist Ernest Hemingway, who had accompanied Americans in the seventh wave to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, rode into Paris with the American 4th Infantry Division.
A Parisian schoolgirl’s feelings on her day of liberation are vibrantly expressed in the following brief excerpts from an unpublished text by Michelle Laforest entitled The Torn Exercise Book. Her writings were recently found stored in brown envelopes in dusty document boxes in the basement of the archive of the Musée Jean Moulin in Paris. The writer, Laforest, was a lycée (high school) student living with her parents and brother in the dark of Occupied Paris. Her words bring to life what otherwise would be an abstract summary of historical events.
6 June 1944, Michelle Laforest, Paris
And then the day that we had hoped for, for so long, arrived. D Day, a spring day the 6th of June 1944. The news broke suddenly. Yes, the 6th of June, the Allies have landed, yes, they have landed, is it really true? The news spread from house to house, from courtyard to courtyard, in the market, in the shops, in the long queues for food. We heard it on the radio! Finally, finally, finally! They had come!
25 August 1944, Michelle Laforest, Paris
It was one of those hot August days with more and more German lorries leaving the city and we could hear in the distance what sounded like the thunder of a storm but the sky was blue and the sound was not that of a bombardment. It was gunfire! The allies were coming, they were on their way, and they were nearly here! There was a kind of effervescence everywhere on the streets and in the homes.
An idea took hold – we needed flags; a collective idea, as if everyone had the same thought at the same time. We would make the flags and hang them at the windows. But how were we going to do it? Quick, tea towels, old sheets cut in strips. A piece of luck, there was a shop that sold dyes in the courtyard. We ran down and started boiling water in the tubs. Some red dye. Some blue dye. The red didn’t work very well, the material came out pinkish red, not the flamboyant red we had hoped for. Too bad. How many stars are there on the American flag? But never mind, we’ll have to just put some on, and that will be good enough.
Finally the flags were made, brandished ceremoniously and then hung out the windows. Everywhere the windows were decked with flags. The flags fluttered gently in the breeze. It was even more beautiful than on the 14th of July.
And then the news broke, they had arrived in Paris. Where were they? Some said Notre Dame, others the Hotel de Ville. Did it matter, they were here! That was definite; it had been announced on the [BBC] radio.
[Over a million left their homes to celebrate as their liberators entered Paris: Americans from south to east, French from north to west.]
Evening came, and we returned home. Suddenly, something amazing happened, which we would never have believed possible: the whole city was ablaze with lights. My mother and I ran to the window. It was fantastical, every house had all the lights blazing. The black out and light curfew were over. Then we heard the Marseillaise being played very loudly and with real passion. My mother was crying with tears of joy. And then we heard the bells first those of the Church of Saint Lambert nearby and then those of St Francois Xavier and then others in the distance responding. Paris was liberated. We felt [we] were living history.
We do not know how many Americans were killed in the Battle for Paris. Their dog tags were combined with the greater number of American dead in the intense combat that awaited just east of there. There are no monuments to us in Paris as there are in Normandy. The American officers and men who turned the lights on in the City of Light are now forgotten.
Prelude to Perdition: Paris
One month before Germans invaded and conquered all of France, Frank Knox (publisher of the Chicago Daily News who, on 7/11/40, became FDR’s Secretary of the Navy) on 4/3/40 assured Americans: “It is simply unthinkable that we will ever again send overseas a great expeditionary force of armed men.” On 12/4/41, three days before Pearl Harbor, Knox told us: “No matter what happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.” Those two witless quotes by Col. Knox were repeated by Col. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune whenever Knox’s name was mentioned for the next decade. McCormick was a conservative, and Knox was a RINO.
When Paris fell in 1940, the French had little thought of being rescued by Americans. The Japanese sneak-attack was still 18 months away. And the Germans were not a direct threat to us because they did not have an aircraft carrier, and Hitler had nixed the Luftwaffe’s request for long-range bombers. Still, there was a great sadness throughout America when Paris went dark.
Nostalgic America’s most popular song in 1940 became "The Last Time I Saw Paris." Six versions were on the popularity charts. My mother wore out many needles playing two or more on our Victrola during those war years. The hard vinyl records eventually wore out, too. Two versions of "The Last Time I Saw Paris" I remember are by Ann Sothern and by Vaughn Monroe. Click those hyperlinks to hear them.
Because of the dark lyrics, "The Last Time I Saw Paris" is likely to be played and re-recorded for centuries. Music of the Happy Hun goose-stepping through the streets of Paris is of remarkably high quality. That professional film was made for the German people, who were inexplicably overjoyed at the lights being extinguished in the City of Light. For about two seconds in that Happy Hun film, you can see the horrified faces of Parisian onlookers.
The 70th anniversary celebrations are ongoing in Paris. This is a cheese and wine kind of day. A Camembert from Normandie with a Margaux from Bordeaux at a Chicago street cafe near Hemingway’s old 1920s office would be apropos.
Michael J. Fahy is an attorney at law in Chicago.