The British Army (who in one of its wilder moments drafted me into the ATS, the women's branch of the service) taught me several things I would rather not know. I can still do a smart about-turn if you insist, still impart an antique patina to new brass buttons, still look meek when I don't feel meek.
But it didn't teach me how to keep a secret despite what my friends think. True, like all the other men and women, American and British, in General Eisenhower's headquarters, I guarded the secrets of D-Day like a tiger. But once the mightiest armada the world has ever known had safely taken off for Normandy without a peep from us, no secret has seemed worth keeping.
In fact, after D-Day, official secrets still came my way. If only I could remember them I certainly wouldn't betray them, but the excitement of being in wartime France has wiped them clean away.
The Germans were driven out of Paris on Aug. 25. We moved in some weeks later.The Army at its most whimsical quartered us in the Palace of Versailles -- not in the Grands Appartements du Roi or the Cabinets de Marie Antoinette but in the stables. The Cour Royale (the palace's magnificent forecourt) was too stony and steep to make a satisfactory barrack square, but we formed threes on it anyway and practiced guardsmenlike turns with tremendous crashes from our hobnailed shoes. The French were astonished, small boys delighted.
If I chose to take a long cut to work (one American, two British officers, and I shuffled top secret papers in what was once a maid's room in a nearby hotel), I could amble through the Palace Gardens. It meant stepping into a masterpiece of 17th-century design where every canal, avenue, statue, and pond had been assigned its place with military precision. Symmetry was all.
But the hedges needed trimming and Marie Antoinette's millpond was silting up with leaves. There was a sad, mysterious feeling in the air.
There was nothing sad about Paris itself.At least not on the surface. On our first day off, Sergeant Peggy and I hitchhiked into the city and were dropped off along the Seine. Dropped off into a world of dazzling crystal light, the atmosphere the impressionists painted, visible nowhere else in wartime Europe. In fact, it will probably never be as clear as it was then, when poor Paris was almost totallly without fuel. (One icy January day we gazed out of the top windows of the Galeries LaFayette and saw not a thread of smoke anywhere and only a few military vehicles in the streets. The only taxis were bicycles that carried passengers in bright canvas-covered sidecars.)
On that first visti, all Paris was still relishing its freedom, sweeping us up in its enthusiasm. A very old, very bearded, very bespectacled fisherman caught a tiny fish as we watched. He popped it into a small tin can and presented it to us very ceremoniously, suggesting that we take it home and put it in a "glass box." We gave it to an excited little girl dressed all in pink.
Little boys whose long, thin legs were longer and thinner than the loaves they were carrying solemnly shook our hands.
When we experimented with the Metro, we found ourselves in a tightly packed line going the wrong way. A gendarme lifted us bodily over the heads of the crowd while everyone yelled appreciation.
At dusk, the flower sellers lit candles so that all around the foot of the darkened Madeleine Cathedral were pools of blossom-filled light.
I needed a new hairstyle. I got one. My fellow customers crowded around to offer advice, translate, and ask questions. "Why do you wear that color? Are you a soldier? Are you armed?" *TAs translators they were failures. No one understood my pleas for a style that would make the Army happy (hair well above the collar). Instead, they sent me out with a "mode" that, back at the barracks , earned me a strident yell from the sergeant major, "Marsh, what on earth have you done to your hair?"
Fashion had become even more important to Paris.During the occupation it was a taunting way to prove that nothing could quench a Parisian's pride.
To a corporal fresh from England (where most women not wearing uniform were clad in no-frills fabric-savers called utility clothing), the fashion-conscious Parisian was startling. I wrote home, "The women wear very high hairstyles surmounted by enormous hats. I saw one with threem enormous birds on it, one red , one white, and one blue. Tall turbans reach down over their ears. I wish you could see the shoes. There is no leather, of course, so they have done fascinating things with very thick wooden or cork soles and raffia tops."
I had an advantage over most of my fellow ATS. Friends had given me introductions to some of the people of Paris, people who knew what I (despite my top secrets) could only guess: the meaning of D-Day to an occupied city. It's a lesson only bitter experience can teach.
They would point out the bunches of flowers on sidewalks commemorating the spots where resisters had fallen.
"Were you afraid of the Nazis?" I asked.
"Us?Afraid? They were afraid of us. they dared not let us walk along here," she said, indicating the arcades that line the Rue de Rivoli.
We turned a corner where a German soldier had kept perpetual guard. For a second, not seeing him there -- she was startled. He had become such an accepted sight.
Early in the morning of June 6 she had switched on her radio to get the forbidden English-language news and over the air came that dramatic announcement occupied Europe was waiting for: The invasion had begun. She went outside longing to spread the news, dificult since under Nazi rule no more than three people could meet in the streets. But "they all knew, they all knew. Their faces were all lit up and they looked so happy."
Another friend, appropriately nicknamed Mme. Giving, had been interned for a while because the Nazis disapproved of her religion (she was a Christian Scientist) and then released under restrictions. She had to report to the police every day, for instance, and her telephone was taken away. She was never allowed to leave the house after sunset.
On the Friday evening when the Allies reached Paris and the battle was still not over, Mme. Giving broke her curfew. She was out in the Place de la Concorde "having a look round" though the shooting was still going on. "It was so thrilling," she told me, "as soon as the Germans were out of one building, French, British, and American flags appeared at the windows, though the Germans were still just across the street. Goodness knows where they had hidden the flags all that time."
So the occupation was over in Paris. But the end of the war in Europe was still several months and some terrible battles away. Flag-waving and rejoicing followed the Allied forces as they moved eastward until the mission, begun 37 years ago this month by 176,475 men, 20,111 vehicles, 1,500 tanks, and 12,000 planes, was triumphantly accomplished.And behind them, a good safe way behind them, came W/209921 Cpl. Marsh, P. ATS.
Last year we remembered D-Day with the first installment of Corporal Marsh's wartime adventures.m