Excerpt from Chapter One:
On January 30, the British Royal Air Force bombed Berlin, and the following day, the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad. Only the BBC kept us informed of such momentous events – the French press had lost its credibility long ago.
The drive to recruit French forced labor intensified. A quarter million young Frenchmen were ordered to go to Germany. Touching all professions, the order created national outrage and the end of apathy in France. Risking up to five years in prison or a hundred thousand franc fine, many young draftees refused to comply. They escaped into forests and mountains to join scattered groups of the Resistance.
The mood was changing. Any mention of de Gaulle’s Free French could provoke arrest by French and German police but when another trainload of workers were shipped from Paris’ Gare de 1’Est, the young men began to shout, “Long live de Gaulle,” followed by the singing of “la Marseillaise,” our national anthem.
In North Africa and Italy, Allies were scoring victories. The British by night and Americans by day were bombing Germany’s industrial heartland. Our own skies were covered with black silhouettes of B-17 bombers tracked by thousands of exploding anti-aircraft shells. Wherever we looked at the sky, there were planes. We’d never seen such an awesome display of power, the entire sky covered with “Flying Fortresses.”
One day, an American plane was hit and fell out of formation, twisting out of control. In rapid succession, the crewmembers bailed out but one parachute wrapped around itself and a young airman fell straight to the earth. We ran into the forest. The Germans had already removed the corpse. Engraved in the soft grass was the imprint of a body. Suddenly it seemed it was not just an imprint of a body but a man, and we began to wonder why these young Americans had flown all the way across the Atlantic.
We ran into town for flowers, telling people about the young fallen American. Although we never saw him, we gave him a face. It seemed everyone wanted to offer flowers to place in his imprint. We ran back to the soft grass by the lake and gently laid the flowers in the outline of his body. The Germans chased us away but they didn’t remove the flowers.
Later that evening, my thoughts were drifting to a continent unknown to me, across the Atlantic. I thought of the thousands of young Americans who crossed the ocean. We knew they were fighting battles in North Africa and Italy and were training in England for the day they would land on our shores. I wanted to know more but all things American were banned. My knowledge of America was limited to what I learned about France’s participation in the Revolutionary War, the Rochambeau Army’s long march to join Americans on the Hudson, General Lafayette’s alliance and friendship with George Washington and Britain’s 1781 surrender at Yorktown. Otherwise all I knew were American movies and the big skies of American westerns.
In my mind, I began to create a mythical America. I imagined crossing the continent from coast to coast, completely free, not seeing a single armed patrol checking my identification and not being bodily searched for 3,000 miles. The hungrier I became, the more I fantasized. To friends, I reported Allied victories heard on the BBC, often exaggerating German losses and American heroism. I tried to convince my closest friends that we should all leave for the USA after the war. I told so many tales, real and imaginary, that soon my nickname became “L’Américain.” Daily, I was asked, “Hey l’Américain! What’s going on?” The name stayed with me long after the war.
L’AMERICAIN EPILOGUE Excerpt by Chris Pan Launois:
I’m thankful for inheriting my father’s rebellious character, guided by his belief that “the first duty of a free man is to be well informed.” His story urges me to appreciate freedom and the food on the table, and reminds me to rebel amid the feeble signposts of oppression and shadowy banality of inhumanity. And though riding the storm in pursuit of “life, liberty, and happiness” may not reconcile the challenges of “the new frontier,” such daring might set the stage to turn the tide.
“L’Américain” was a boy who fell in love with America, grateful for her generosity. Though he was as unfinished and imperfect as the idea of America, he was as well loved.
To his unfading question, “Who am I to you?” my answer remains, “You are the voice I will always hear in darkness and in light, the true friend forever gone and forever by my side.”
More excerpts at: