- Chapter 4 -
RAMECOURT AND RAMECOURT REVISITED
RAMECOURT - 1944
ne of our fiercest battles, as we crossed France, resulted in the withdrawal of the enemy as we entered the little village of Ramecourt, population about 180. It was midafternoon, and with a welcome lull in the fighting, one of my Sergeants and I saw an opportunity to improve our diet for supper that evening and avoid one more meal of our tiresome K Rations, so we set out to "liberate" some eggs. (The word "liberate" was used by G.I.s to describe the acquisition of any item which was a gift, purchased or stolen. And of course, "liberating" the wristwatches of the German captives was standard procedure.) The effort consisted of calling on French homes to see if we could purchase an egg or two in each case. The going price was the equivalent in francs of 5 cents, about 51 cents in 1997 money, for each egg. That may seem like a high figure, but with the shortage of food in France, it did not appear out of line to us. Anyhow, a variation in our diet was a spectacular event, and, furthermore, what else was there to do with our money? There was always the thought in the back of our minds that we might not live to spend it, so any available pleasure was worth it.
Having been successful in collecting a few eggs, the next effort was to find a family to prepare an omelette for us. Not only did we find such a family, they contributed more eggs, and you can imagine the delight of such a meal as only the French can prepare it.
A GI bargains for eggs, paying with occupation money and accepted by the French.
Note that the woman is wearing wooden shoes common in Normandy.
Well fed, my next challenge was to find a comfortable place to spend the night, which turned out to be equally successful. I located a stable where we could rest comfortably on a fulsome supply of hay, so we prepared for what we hoped would be a restful night.
Not so. It turned out that there were 136 Germans trying to escape from France as our troops raced past them. They were rear echelon troops, that is from signal corps or various headquarters, and were not organized as an attack unit, but they were all armed, and every German was trained for fighting. The problem was that they did not approach us from the direction in which the enemy had retired. They came in the back end of the town, where we should most certainly have had better security than we did, and the first evidence of their appearance was when the Battalion medical officer, who is supposed to be in the rear, went to the latrine and found men walking around with the wrong kind of helmets on. They parked their cars and trucks in our motor pool, next to our trucks, and became mixed up with our troops.
The medic called on his field telephone to an incredulous Battalion Commander to say he was surrounded by Germans. His statement was soon verified by the sound of rifle shots, but in the wrong direction from our viewpoint, and we were confused.
A 72 year-old woman, who lived above the stable, appeared before us, so terrified she was shaking. She was shining a little flashlight, which I promptly grabbed as being a possible attractant for German fire. (It was the only flashlight I remember seeing in France my whole time there.) Under the circumstances, my French became worse than usual, and I employed grammar which has amused my children who are better educated in the language than I am. I said to her, "Madame, tu es fou." ("You are crazy."), employing the masculine adjective. The proper word should have been "folle", and anyhow, to an old woman, I should have used the more polite "vous" instead of the familiar "tu".
I promptly modified my approach as I realized I was facing an old woman, hysterical from fear. I felt sorry for her. She desperately wanted to be escorted down the street to the house of friends, by coincidence the omelet cookers.
I accompanied her down the middle of the street and saw her safely in. The gravity of the situation was demonstrated by the fact that no sooner had I returned than two German soldiers appeared on the street a few feet in front of us. I don't know what would have happened had they appeared moments earlier as I approached them.
A man who is knowledgeable about military affairs chided me for taking the old woman down the street. He stated emphatically that having heard gunshots nearby, I should not have risked the life of the Platoon Leader, myself. I should have locked her in a room and put a guard there. Perhaps, but my cultural background is such that I did not hesitate to help the terrified old woman. There could have been another turn of events, but the results were such that I am glad I did. (See the end of this account.)
As far as the two Germans were concerned, understandably, a soldier in my platoon shot one of them, and the other came running into the stable where we were. One of my men who could speak excellent German, a fact which we had not previously known, asked the enemy soldier what was going on. As they were shouting German at each other, I told them to shut up and move into the back of the stable or some GI might start shooting at German speakers.
The terrified enemy soldier was not coherent. He only seemed to want to talk about his six brothers, all of whom had been killed in Russia. We did piece together, however, the facts about the retreating troops and how they had found their way into Ramecourt.
The next morning the Germans began to surrender, probably with great relief on the part of many. The usual colorful and exaggerated stories were concocted by the GI's as to what had happened, to amuse each other, and one Sergeant in F Company claimed he counted his squad in the dark and had an extra man.
Knowing more about the situation than most of our troops, including the Battalion Commander, from our captured soldier, I ventured forth early and made a fine discovery. Some of the Germans arrived on bicycles, valuable possessions in France during the war. I appropriated a number of them and distributed these spoils of war to my French friends of the evening before. After hearing my knock, they emerged gingerly from their cellars to open the door and were surprised at my appearance and the opening line, "Monsieur, voudriez vous un bicyclette?"
There was much excitement in town the next morning as people emerged and we all talked about what had taken place. With all the German captives lined up, they agreed that nothing so memorable had ever happened in Ramecourt. I talked at length with my new friends, and I particularly remember an old man sitting quietly on a stone fence. I asked him if he had been afraid the night before, and his succinct response was, "Jamais de peur" (Never afraid).
RAMECOURT REVISITED - 1979
When our son Bryan was at St. Paul School, in Concord, New Hampshire, he developed a friendship with a fellow student from Belgium, Florent by name. His friend invited him to visit during the summer of his 4th Form (Junior) year, and we were delighted for him to have the European trip.
Florent and his whole family were planning a vacation in Normandy, which is a popular spot for such an activity, being the beautiful area that it is. I casually suggested that they might like to visit some place where I had been during the war, and the idea met with great enthusiasm from Florent's father, who had been a boy when the American troops came through. He had fond memories of the GI's, particularly as he had been treated to chocolate candy and chewing gum by our friendly soldiers.
I suggested Ramecourt for a visit and gave Bryan a description of my activities there. Florent's father wrote the Mayor of the town and arranged for a visit. Much to the surprise of the Belgian family, to Bryan's surprise, and certainly to my surprise when I heard about it, the whole town turned out and held what, in effect, was Bryan Bell Day in Ramecourt. It must be remembered what an important event the liberation of their community had been in the lives of the people there.
The Frenchman, at whose home our omelet was prepared, recounted to Bryan many details of my visit, almost all of which I had forgotten. He remembered that I had told him about my brother in the South Pacific. He said that I had brought six eggs for the omelet, but that he had produced eight. What impressed him was that I wanted to take some of the omelet to my men. He added, "No French officer would ever have done that."
A woman who was about 65 years old at the time of Bryan's visit, and who was the daughter of the then 72 year old woman I had accompanied down the street, expressed great appreciation for what I had done. A considerable number of people gathered with her and the visitors, at the stable, where the mother had been, and they marched down the street, kind of like a parade, to the house to which I had accompanied her, to commemorate the event.
The Mayor was most cordial to Bryan and recalled our conversations He said that he had suggested, "We may never meet again.", and I had replied, "Who knows?" Again, this is something I do not recall.
The Mayor took Bryan down in his cellar and filled a little bottle with Calvedos, the white lightening brandy made from distilling hard apple cider, which was the pride of the area. Bryan, 17 at the time, was very worried when he came back to the States that the custom's official would arrest him for smuggling something into the country and called me for advice when he could first get to a phone. I told him just to tell the full story to the officer, and I was sure there would be no problem. And there wasn't.
Yes, I would have enjoyed being there with Bryan, but it certainly was a memorable event for him, and, from my viewpoint, I liked the idea of his being the focal point of the enjoyable experience.