With Kind Permission.
Extract from Chapters 4 and 5 of A CIVILIAN IN UNIFORM by Jean Kohn.
(Operation Peg was a military operation involving US special forces (OSS) parachuted in to assist the local Maquis, in August 1944. Its mission was to harass enemy forces by cutting Route Nationale 117, and destroying communication and supply lines in the Carcassonne Gap. It was led by 1st Lieut Grahl H. Weeks and 1st Lieut Paul Swank.)
The Allied armies had invaded Normandy since early June. We were training for the southern invasion which was in everybody’s mind. It started on August 15th 1944.
In July 1944 we were ready to go. Then a new officer to replace Captain Pons came in: Lieutenant Paul Swank. We did not know him at all, we did not know who he was, where he came from. He was a very silent reserved man. We liked him right away, as a matter of fact we liked him very much; but we did not know how to “handle” him.
Lieutenant Weeks on the other hand had “lived” with us for quite a while. We knew him in-and-out. No problem. We knew who he was, we knew his weaknesses and his good sides. He was fair. On the other hand, that new lieutenant, Paul Swank: we just could not make him out. I would say he was somewhat “timid.” We respected him especially for his “military” background and knowledge. He did not say much and did not enter into long conversations as we had been used to with Captain Pons. When he gave an order we just obeyed—no questions asked. That order was always logical.
It was shortly thereafter that we prepared for Mission Peg.
One day in August we were told “OK, boys, here we go.”
Where to? Southern France.
We were put, I would say, in a secret part of the camp or another place near the airport. We were ordered not to talk to anybody anymore, to gather all our gear, all our arms, knives, carabines, sub machine guns, plastic explosives, the works. We also had maps, 10,000 French francs and twenty 20-Francs gold coins. In addition we were given a note signed by US General Benjamin F. Caffey saying:
To All Whom It May Concern
This soldier is a fully accredited representative of the Supreme Allied High Command. He has been instructed to join forces wherever possible with resistance units to wage unceasing war against the German invader for the liberation of France”
We started one night in a Halifax bomber from Blida airport, west of Algiers. This plane was manned by a mixed crew, the pilots were British, the “dispatcher” (steward) was Australian and we of course were American boys. But on that trip, that night, we did not jump. We came back. Why? Because (we learned later on) the place we were supposed to land on was under attack by the Germans.
This original jump site was the maquis of Picaussel, west of Quillan under the command of Lucien Maury. The night return to Blida was nerve racking since we were all prepared to go and jump.
We flew again on the night of August 10th and then we landed at another site Le Clat; near Axat not far from Quillan, due south from Carcassonne. We landed on a very very rocky type of hill. I think my buddy, Bill Straus broke one or two ribs, Sergeant Sampson hurt his coccis. Later on we said jokingly we landed on an anti-parachutist type field. But everything came out alright In fact this site had been selected to receive equipment only and not paratroopers. The maquisard thought for a little while we were German paratroopers. It is a good thing they did not shoot at us.
As I landed, I kissed the ground—since I felt I was “back home” I remembered also a mythology tale of a giant called Antée, son of Poseidon and Gaia who would always be invulnerable as long as he touched his “mother,” the earth. I had been impressed by this story and deep in myself I figured that if I kissed the French soil, I would also be invulnerable. I even wrote a poem later on this episode. Antée was killed by Heracles who held him off the ground and suffocated him. Well, the German “Heracles” was not there that day and I am still around to tell that tale.
Along with good omen stories, during the “drôle de guerre” in 1939/1940, my parents had rented a place in Granville, in Normandy south of Cherbourg as they were afraid Paris might be bombed by the Germans. This house faced west and many evenings I watched the sun go down over the ocean. There is an old belief which says that if a person sees the last ray which turns green as the sun disappears on the horizon, he will have good luck all his life. Every afternoon I would try to see this “rayon vert” as they call it in French. It took many days watching before I finally saw it one late afternoon—just a flicker of a light, but definitely greenish.
Not only did I kiss the ground like this mythological giant, but in addition I had seen the “rayon vert.” Therefore I felt I would come back alive from the War.
More seriously, as soon as we landed, we met the FTP maquis (Francs Tireurs et Partisans) I did not even know what FTP meant at the time nor did we know that this group of “maquisards” was called Jean Robert-Faïta—for us it was the “Maquis.” They were communists with a dual command: A political commissar (Jean Meyer) and a military chief (Lieutenant Michel—real name Adolphe Gomez). The maquisards saluted each other with a raised closed fist. To me this was not a surprise as I had been through the “Front Populaire” election explosion in 1936 when long parades of protesting socialists and communists would go throughout Paris saluting with their raised fists.
But to my American buddies who came from “middle town” United States, this was quite a novelty to say the least. I did explain that these communists and socialists were also very patriotic French boys—to no avail—especially to some of our fellows who came from the US”Deep South” with good religious background.
We landed early in the morning of August 11th 1944 at the Clat. It was still dark. We heard some men talk French. Contact was made immediately. We collected our gear and all the containers filled with the equipment which had been dropped at the same time. There was a truck and some cars waiting for us. We loaded the whole lot of containers of arms and equipment and we went on the road hoping there would not be any Germans waiting for us since airplanes flying at night do make an awful big noise. We went to Salvezines from Axat, and then up the road to a house called the Nicoleau Farm (Ferme Nicoleau). There we were greeted by a whole bunch of young men, maybe two hundred, most of them young French boys who had refused to be drafted into the forced labor organization that the French Administration (Vichy Government) had worked out with the German nazis. This organization was called STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire) In other words the Vichy Government would send all these young fellows to work in Germany—as almost slave labor for a miserly pay. I presume (I am not quite sure of this ) that since conscription into military service was not in effect during the 1940/1944 period, the STO replaced it by “drafting” young men as they reached manhood.
Actually this law was supposed to work as follows: for three workers going to Germany, one French Army prisoner (1940) would be sent back home. Very few prisoners were sent back, in fact. In addition, since the Germans considered these French youngsters as slave labor, many who went to Germany never came back as they died of malnutrition, others were shot as they revolted or reacted against bad treatment. After the War others died of tuberculosis or other sickness due to the bad treatment in Germany.
Somehow the bad news concerning the STO life conditions filtered out of Germany and when the Vichy Government called new batches of young men to present themselves to be inducted into STO, many of them fled and joined the maquis. Others crossed over the Pyrenees to Spain and tried to join either the Free French forces or, later on, the regular new French Government army in Algiers.
It can be said without downgrading the magnificent gesture these young men did by joining the various resistance groups, the maquis in general would have had less manpower since patriotism is one thing; but living in very poor, cold conditions, without much food is another thing. Many young men were city kids without much training for this kind of hard life.
One evening just as we were approaching Carcassonne, in a small town, probably Bram, we were billeted in various homes for the night. As luck would have it—unless it was done on purpose—I was assigned to a house where the lady who greeted me told me her son had committed suicide as he did not want to be sent to STO. He was studying at the Toulouse University. All evening I tried to talk to her—to no avail of course. What could I tell her as I was the same age her son would have been. I was full of life in perfect health. I slept in the boy’s bed. I left early in the morning with an uneasy feeling. Why did that boy kill himself when it was so easy to join any maquis ?
That is why the maquis was “populated” in majority by fellows who had escaped that forced labor draft. But there were others—some older men who were politically “engaged”—communists, socialists, people who hated Vichy. There were also some Spanish Republic ex-soldiers who had escaped to France after the fall of the last bastion of the Spanish Republic in Northern Catalunia in 1939. Last but not least even some Jews who had miraculously escaped since they had been literally chased by the Gestapo helped by the French Milice from 1942 on. All this mix of people who did not want to get caught by either the Milice or the Gestapo ended up in the mountain hideouts. Arms were scarce and our mission was to help in teaching them the use of rifles—we had come with British Enfield rifles from World War One.
Each member in the maquis had an assumed name. The purpose of this was to insure the safety of the families back home should they get caught. One man whose real name was Jean Milner called himself “Kaplan.” He was a Jewish young fellow from Paris. He had managed to work his way south and ended up in this group. I asked him why he had taken a typical Jewish “nickname,” when it would have been much easier to be called Durand or Dupont. His answer, heroic or not was—”if I get caught, then I want to die with my head high as a Jew.” To this day I cannot agree. A dead hero is dead.
We established our camp at the Ferme Nicoleau, near Salvezines.
We slept outside in our sleeping bags in the woods. In case of a surprise attack we could come out of the bags and fight back quickly without being caught in a house.
Right away we started to blow a few bridges. It turned out that the destruction of bridges on roads the Germans were not really using was a senseless exercise. One case in particular was especially bad: we half destroyed a railroad bridge which could not be used anyway since there was a derailed train convoy a few hundred feet down the line. We had learnt for months how to use these plastic explosives and we were really itching to have a go at a few bridges to show our new friends how good we were. One bridge on a secondary road was also blown very neatly one night. We forgot to put up a danger sign or some branches across the road. In the morning a French car came, the driver did not see the bridge had gone. He and his woman passenger were killed in the crash.
Our radio contact with Algiers did not work. I was told our operator sent a danger signal over the air which meant the Germans had captured us. Contact was established later on by the Resistance radio Group and Algiers did learn finally we were all right. I think our radio never worked. One thing that did work though was the power generator we had to crank while the radio man was working on his messages. It took a lot of elbow grease to turn the handles. We all took turns in working it. With all the good will of our radio man, Algiers did not answer.
The maquisards captured a few Germans—and most important, a member of the Milice who had done horrible things to other resistance fighters. His capture had been facilitated as first his girl friend got caught. She was frightened and forced to tell him to meet her in a cafe in Quillan. As he arrived he was jumped on by a few maquisards who took him up to our camp.
There he was “judged” by what I might call a kangaroo court after being beaten to a pulp. We were impressed to see what he went through and still be able to walk and stand up. He was condemned to immediate death and shot by firing squad the same day in front of all the maquisards and ourselves. I was a little shaken about the whole affair since the “court” was not a real one. But in those difficult days, revenge was high in everybody’s mind against persons who not only had collaborated with the Germans, but worse, had acted as agents for the Gestapo by denouncing and killing other Frenchmen. At the same time, knowing what the Milice had done in that area, nobody felt sorry for that man.
This Milice man turned out to be courageous as he realized he did not have a chance to come out alive. He was taken to the execution area where he refused to be blindfolded and before being shot he did cry out loud and clear:
“Messieurs, Vive la France”.
After this execution, we were served a “cassoulet.” Believe it or not, our little OG group did not have much appetite. We were not really at ease. We had orders not to interfere in local affairs—and we did not. But this fast court martial followed by firing squad gave us the shivers.
The few German prisoners the maquisards captured were very young boys not even eighteen. Some were not even Germans. I felt sorry for them since they did not look like SS troopers. Maybe that is why they were captured easily. They were later on turned over to the French Army. We respected the Geneva Convention, we did not shoot them.
We armed the maquisards with the Enfield rifles, showed them how to load them and shoot. Then we started to work our way north to Quillan first and then toward Carcassonne.
Meanwhile a representative of the A.S. (Armée Secrète), the regular resistance movement (FFI – Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur) came to claim that the arms we had brought with us were for them and not for the FTP maquis where we were. I somehow acted as mediator and translator for our American officer in the argument that followed until we told all parties that we had to fight one enemy: the Germans. Therefore let’s not have a fight between resistance groups. Some of our equipment might have been given to the AS for all I know.
All the maquis groups of the area, including ours, moved into Quillan shortly afterwards. Could we say that we “liberated” the town? Not really, since there were no Germans around. Nevertheless there was a festive feeling of freedom going around.
Then one day, a fateful day, August 17th 1944, we were told German troops from Carcassonne were on the move to take some food from a large warehouse near Alet, in Couiza. The German army had large food inventories at various places. We were told they had enough food to feed “one million men for ten days.” Actually it turned out they had “only” 100,000 rations, which is still a lot to eat (It was French Army supplies taken over by the Germans). We did eat some cans of corned beef taken from that warehouse. French Army called this prepared meat “singe” (monkey meat). It was good and much better tasting than the run of the mill American C-rations.
In those days food was really scarce. If we could take that inventory away from the Germans, it would deprive them of their daily needs in their flight north. It would also be most welcome, not only by us, but principally by the local population. The Couiza warehouse was guarded by thirty and some German soldiers.
After the August 15th successful landing in Southern France, the German High Command had told their forces stationed in and around Toulouse to retreat at all speed toward the Rhône Valley and go north to avoid being taken in a pincer movement by the Allies coming from Normandy in the North and from the new beachhead in the South. The Carcassonne German command decided to move fast and take as much food as they could from Couiza.
To protect their convoys, some well-armed soldiers were escorting the convoy. French civilians had been taken by the Germans to help load the trucks. The various maquisard groups tried to immobilize the convoys. Reinforcement was called in from Carcassonne and many poor French boys were surrounded and killed mercilessly by the German infantry. That was in the morning of August 17th. In the afternoon, the Germans took some hostages to walk in front of their trucks and started to go north toward Carcassonne. We were supposed to stop them.
I was always a volunteer for that kind of thing. Lieutenant Swank, Sergeant Galley, John Frickey, Rock Veilleux and myself started north from Quillan with explosives. I do not know what roads we took to go there. Apparently we must have gone unnoticed around Couiza and Esperaza.
We were guided by our FTP maquisards. We were to blow the road north of Alet where the Aude river flows in a narrow gorge. The large stone falling from the cliff on the road would halt the German convoy who would have to stop to move the stones. Then we would shoot at them.
A so called red Cross ambulance came by going south. The driver saw what we were up to and he told the Germans. The enemy convoy infantry support rushed toward us faster than anticipated and caught us not totally prepared. In addition, Lt. Swank and Sergeant Galley had problems with the explosives which did not go off as intended. They did not have enough time to set up another explosion. The road was not blocked, and the large group of real tough German soldiers came rushing up the road shooting with all they had.
At that very moment Lieutenant Swank got shot and killed. I do not know exactly how he was immobilized. A German officer finished him with a shot in the head.
Sergeant Galley was shot badly in the hand. He managed to escape.
As for myself, I was alone on the cliff overhanging the road where I had been told to be to cover the road. Two Germans came up on the cliff from behind. They wanted to shoot me. One of them said in German very clearly:
“Recht fünf meters.” (on the right: five meters)
That was I they were talking about.
They threw a potato type hand grenade that landed real close and when it went off, my woollen cap blew off. I was hit on my right thigh (at the time I did not realize I was slightly wounded). Then I had three choices:
-I surrender – NO
-I fight back – NO, they were two with a sub machine gun and I was alone.
-I flee – Yes
I remembered our orders: Do not fight if “they” are more numerous than you.
So I fled.
I did not know I was wounded, even slightly. I went up the mountain. I heard some shots during the night. I slept in the mountain. I had been scared, scared, I mean very afraid to be shot, to be taken prisoner or I don’t know what.
Night had fallen. I was so tired by then that I ended up in a bush way high on that mountain side feeding on a small roll of mint Lifesavers and fell fast asleep.
Early in the morning, I felt good since I was still alive. I figured the best way would be to go over the hill and see what I could do to get back to Quillan.
I went up to the top of the hill and down on the other side. It was a beautiful and warm summer day. The countryside was bare of houses. Not even cultivated fields. Just some trees and bushes. I finally saw a farm or what I thought did look like a farmhouse.
I looked at it for a long time to make sure there were no Germans there.
I ran a little, approaching it cautiously, stopped for a while, still inspecting it. Then I rushed in and asked quickly
“Any Germans around?”
Then, “Please give me something to drink.”
They gave me some water and probably some food.
It seemed to me these farmers did not want to be involved in anything that had to do with fighting, especially with so many Germans around. But they did call for help and organized my pick up to have me return to Quillan.
Somebody came with a car. I think it was Mr. Barres. They put a civilian coat on top of my uniform. This was really extremely dangerous. I was hiding under a civilian coat. Should we have been caught by the Germans we might have been shot on the spot.
But no—we passed through a German held town, Couiza or Esperaza? Upon reaching Quillan, I found out that Paul Swank had died, had been killed. I was shocked.
After joining my group and telling them my story we went to receive Paul Swank’s coffin on a square behind the church.
I remember vividly Lt. Weeks kneeling at the open coffin holding the cold hand of Lt. Swank as a farewell gesture. We then all went to the church where a religious service was held and from there to the cemetery where he was buried in a temporary grave.
The killing of my lieutenant really shocked me. It was the first death of one of us that we witnessed. You always hear about death in War, but that was “it.” We had known him for such a short while before our mission. Yet this was as if we had lost an old time friend. That evening after the burial we were silent. Our little group felt very, very sad.
I was taken to a doctor to see if he could take the small piece of grenade from my thigh. He had what looked like a pair of thin long medical tongs. He tried, without success. Since he could not find it he told me the best would be to forget it and keep that piece of metal in my body as a war souvenir.
Up to that point we were not really motivated, but from that day on, we saw the War with a different eye. We were much more careful and cautious in taking up fighting positions. We did help take a few German prisoners, but we did not hold them, that was not our purpose.
I think there was a rumour going around that said we took in 10,000 German prisoners. That’s not right. Maybe some Germans did ask to surrender to us, Americans. They must have figured they would receive better treatment from us than from the French as they surely knew of some atrocities perpetuated a few weeks before by tough German units. I do not remember anything about all this.
One thing is certain: we were not supposed to take any prisoners. That was not our job. What could a bunch of twelve American GIs do with prisoners anyway. How could we hold them? In chains?
Until the end of August when we entered Carcassonne nothing spectacular happened.
So we “liberated,” Limoux, some other villages and ended up in Carcassonne.