Part 43: Life and war in France
From: Sergeant Marvin A. Palecek and his son, Glen Palecek
As soon as they completed the beachhead of Southern France, the U.S. Seventh Army, together with the French First Army, traveled north through France not far from the Swiss border. In France, the Thunderbirds advanced even faster than they had in Sicily, covering 25 miles in 24 hours. Next, the division command post advanced 70 miles in one move. Four-thousand, two-hundred and fourteen Germans were captured in the first 15 days of the advance.
As radio chief of his battalion, Dad knew much more about what was going on than most. In France, he had a Frenchman with him to interpret French broadcasts and radio transmissions. Dad listened to many different radio programs and transmissions. All soldiers were eager to know these things and sought Dad out throughout the war. They enjoyed his endless enthusiasm that the war was coming to an end soon. In one of his letters to Mom, Dad tells of a soldier who told Dad he didn’t believe the war would be over soon, but he enjoyed Dad telling him it would be anyway. Dad’s optimism, as well as his confidence in the Lord and spiritual guidance, made him very popular.
One day, an Army chaplain asked Dad to teach Sunday school. Dad wrote to Mom that he didn’t feel qualified. He wrote that he had two men in his 11-man crew that had studied for the ministry, and two more that were devoted Catholics. Dad wrote to Mom he thought he was underqualified to teach religion. Still, as the war wore on, Dad found himself becoming more and more a preacher. Ironically, it was not one of the two who had studied in the ministry who regularly traveled with Dad to go to Army church services – it was Al Bacon.
Nowhere in this war were Dad and the other soldiers treated with more enthusiasm and gratitude than in France. In Italy, people came out to greet them, but they always seemed to want something from the G.I.s. For example, they often asked for entry into the U.S. for themselves or their children. Also, Dad said the Italians were always steeling from them. And, don’t forget the black market for Army supplies in Italy. Finally, Italian armies had less will to fight than those from any other nation.
France was different. Dad said he never saw more joy in the faces of people than those he helped liberate in France. No Hollywood actor, no matter how good, could ever replicate that joy.
There were times when that joy turned to pure hatred – that was when German prisoners marched by. Again, no Hollywood actor could duplicate that hated look as the French booed and jeered their captured enemy. American guards were needed, not so much to keep the Germans from escaping, but to protect them from the irate French citizens. These American guards had to watch out lest they be struck by a rock or bottle meant for one of the prisoners. Sometimes, French women would rush past the guards so they could strike, slap, or spit on one of the German soldiers. Concussions and severe injuries were not uncommon.
Many French homes had livestock of some sort in the basement or partitions for them upstairs. Throughout the winter, manure from these livestock pens would be placed in piles, sometimes in the town square. In the spring, these piles would be spread in the fields for fertilizer. Still, there was always a supply of fresh stuff which the German prisoners now found being thrown at them. The glory days for Germany were over and, in spite of the treatment I have described, these prisoners surrendering to the Western Allies were the lucky ones.
When American soldiers were captured, it was not uncommon for them to escape and return to the war. German prisoners, on the other hand, could not escape. You see, we had many empty ships which had carried supplies to Europe. This provided a mode of transportation to the perfect place to send the prisoners – back to the U.S. Many of you are aware that such a German prison camp was set-up right here in Winona County, as were many more throughout the country. Some did escape into the American countryside, only to be re-captured trying to return to the prison camps.
In France, Dad’s 45th Division often traveled farther in a day than they had in a month in Italy. In spite of this, they did find some time for recreation as they did from time-to-time throughout the war. Some of Dad’s men went hunting for the huge rabbits that were found in the French countryside. Bob Hope and others came to entertain the troops. Speaking of Bob Hope, I have an interesting account of him many would not want me to tell.
Look for more stories next time as the Thunderbirds pursue the fleeting Germans in France.