An American Behind German Lines

In honor of Memorial Day, I hope you’ll forgive me for going a bit off-topic and sharing the true story of a very dear friend of mine.

Guten tag! Was für ein schöner Tag! The diminutive communications man said to the soldiers in the foxhole, waving his hand in a friendly gesture as he passed them, continuing to lay communications wire across the front line. The soldiers in the foxhole, despite the fact that it was -4 degrees out in Alsace, laughed and returned the greeting. The front always needed jokesters, it didn’t hurt that the Volksdeutsche always had funny accents when they spoke German.

The man laying the communication line kept walking. His heart felt like it was pounding as loud as the sound of his boots crunching in cold snow. He looked like any other German Wehrmacht soldier. Wearing a German uniform that had been a bit battered by battle and the unforgiving weather and badges perfectly sewed on. His sidearm tucked securely in its place and a helmet that didn’t keep the cold out. The communication line he was laying across the front line was German. There was one thing however, that wasn’t German. The man himself.

Bob, the man in the uniform, was American. He had spent most of the war fighting with British and Free French forces. He had fought across Africa, up through Italy and now, in the winter of 1944, was attached to the French Foreign Legion (1st French Army), entrenched near Alsace, France in what would become known as the Colmar Pocket Campaign.

Looking back, he would blame it on his youth that he hadn’t thought twice when the Lieutenant told him that he needed to lay wire across the German front line so that they could establish communication with a group of Free French forces who were encircled. At least he had had enough foresight to demand a German uniform and communication wire. True, he would be executed as a spy if caught, but without it he had no chance of making it at all.

He had no plan for what he was going to do when he encountered the French forces while dressed in a Wehrmacht uniform. He never thought about anything but making it past the foxholes the Germans had entrenched themselves in. He didn’t even know how he was supposed to locate the French forces that he was tasked to save.

He kept walking through the bitter cold weather, cursing himself for ever thinking Africa was too hot. What he wouldn’t give to be that warm again.

Then he saw it, the frost making it glisten in the distance like a mirage. A tank. Not just any tank, but a tank with the flag of the Free French painted proudly on the side. The French soldiers had seen him too however, and now had their guns pointed at him. He quickly put up his hands in a sign of surrender and shouted clearly Je suis Américain to the group of men who now had their guns trained on his every move.

The soldiers looked at him skeptically as he tried to explain himself. They eventually took his communications gear and stated as a matter of fact that if the voice on the other end of the phone line didn’t speak French, he had very good reason to fear for his life.

Luckily for Bob, the voice on the other end of the line did in fact speak French. The commander on the other line confirmed his identity. Once off the phone, the mens attention turned back to the man still standing in the Wehrmacht uniform. They look at him expectantly, and it took a minute for Bob to realize the unspoken part of the mission. Now that he had established communication with the soldiers, he had to lead them out of the encirclement.

Amazingly, Bob did lead the men out of the encirclement, saving the lives of every one of the soldiers who had been trapped.

For saving the lives of the Free French forces, Bob was awarded the French Croix de Guerre avec Palme and was later awarded the French Legion of Honor, the highest decoration awarded in France, by the French government.

Bob was proud of his military service. He never missed a chance to wear his uniform out. He loved people and never missed a chance to share stories, especially if it was over Chinese food at his favorite restaurant. The French flag hung proudly form his porch until the day he died. It wasn’t uncommon for staff from the French consulate to come and visit.

I confess that I still look for the French flag every time I pass his old house. Each time I look and see the empty space where the flag used to fly my heart drops a little.

On this Memorial Day, I’ll think of all those who sacrificed their lives fighting for our country. But I’ll also remember those I knew and loved, whose voices and stories still echo in my ears. Those who are longer here and still dearly missed.

So this is for you Bob, because i’ll never stop looking for the French tricolor hanging from your porch. And because the world just seems a little less kind without you here.

 

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