"At 17, I thought I knew everything."
Sixty years later, sitting in her kitchen and reminiscing about the war, Jeaninne Gillingham can hardly stop laughing as she recalls her girlish recklessness and the headstrong adventure that swept her from this sleepy town in Normandy to Oelwein, Iowa.
"He was a big tall man, very good looking," she remembers. "I thought 'That's the one I want to talk to.' So I took out my English books."
Jeaninne Massey's chance meeting in a field near her home with Howard Gillingham, a welder repairing tanks with the US 2nd Division just after D-Day, changed her life. But she was hardly alone.
Almost as soon as they hit the beaches, GIs started hitting on the local girls. And around 6,000 of them took home French war brides. Some of their stories of cross-cultural love are chronicled in the new book, "Des Amours de GIs," published to coincide with Sunday's 60th anniversary of D-Day and shedding new light on an aspect of World War II history that has been little explored.
Thumbing their noses at language barriers, cultural differences, and often at their parents, these Franco-American couples brought together in the heat of war or the glow of liberation let their passions rule. Today, writes Hilary Kaiser in the prologue to her book, "We are struck by [their] naivete, their romanticism, and the impetuosity of their decisions."
Half the marriages that Ms. Kaiser recounts ended in divorce, weighed down with incompatibilities. A pert Parisian shopgirl found herself picking cotton on her husband's farm in the middle of segregated Alabama, and couldn't stand it. Another woman realized after a couple of years of life in America that she and her husband "had absolutely nothing in common."
Despite the difficulties, however, and the often hasty nature of their origins, many of these marriages, facilitated by the War Brides Act of 1945, which paid the women's transatlantic voyages, lasted and even flourished.
Mrs. Gillingham, for example, was married to her husband for nearly 50 years, until Howard died in 1994, and says their relationship was strengthened by the unaccustomed things she found herself doing in Oelwein, such as building the family home.
"I made the cement, I made everything. Before, I had never even made my bed. You see what love can do?" she says with a broad grin.
Jeaninne Gillingham coped with that sort of reality. So did Jacqueline Decker, who now lives just a few miles from Utah Beach, where her husband Ambrose landed in1944. But reality was far from her mind when she met him in Paris a year later, Mrs. Decker acknowledges.
"When you are 17 and 23, when the girl is cute and the boy is good-looking, that's a pretty powerful attraction," she says. "Plus, it was the end of the war, we were living a special time, everything bad was over, it was like a movie. Everything was turning pink."
The young women who dared to leave everything they knew behind "were rather adventurous, and saw a chance for a better life," says Kaiser. Marcelle Boswell Rougeaux, who found herself married to an Alabama farm boy, recalls in the book: "I was just 18, I was fed up with the war and the shortages and looking after my three sisters and my brother all the time. America offered a new horizon."
In the girls' imaginations, America was the land of milk and honey, especially after the privations of war time. Little did they realize how hard a landing they risked, especially if their eyes had lighted on a poor boy: Many of them found themselves living with their in-laws, who were not always welcoming. They had to learn a new language and new customs while their husbands looked for work. Fitting in was rarely easy.
None of that went through Jeaninne Massey's head in the weeks after D-Day, as she courted Howard Gillingham each evening after she had spent the day working at her parents' cafe, and he had spent it near the front line repairing tanks.
"We would go to the Americans camped in their tents to bring them strawberries and milk and butter, and they would give us chocolate and other treats we had not seen for years," she recalls. "My mother told my father, 'You notice your daughter always talks to the same big GI?' And he said, 'They don't understand each other, so don't worry.' I don't know how we communicated: I used a dictionary, we used our hands."
On the evening of July 25, "I arrived like usual" at the field where the Americans were camped "and there's nobody there. Boy. But everybody knew about Howard and me, and someone bring me a cigarette pack with a message on the back: 'We've moved to the church.' For the first time and the last time for several years we kissed. Big thing. Next day they were gone for sure."
Where to, Jeaninne didn't know, but that did not stop her from writing to Howard in care of his unit, even though she did not know whether he was getting her letters, and she heard nothing back. "I never let it go," she says now. "What women want, women get, and we were very romantic."
In one letter, in her carefully elaborate French schoolgirl's handwriting, she wrote to him: "I write well the American but I do not know speak it, I wait for you in order to learn. Have trust in me." (She still has some of those letters, "Returned to Sender, Addressee Unknown" or copies she made of them at the time.)
And then, six months later, she received a Christmas card from Howard, a sign that he was still interested. Jeaninne wrote back: "My mother want that you learn very much the French in order to speak with you. Poor dear you shall have very ill at your head."
Not that Jeaninne's mother and father were very keen on this liaison, based on a six-week pidgin English courtship. When Howard proposed, in one of his haphazardly spelled, pencil-scrawled letters, "My father said he would have to come back a civilian and a Catholic. He figured that would stop everything."
Meanwhile the months of absence and the long silences caused by the vagaries of war-time mail played on Jeaninne's nerves. "It is soon one month that I have not mail from you...I ask myself what you have or if you are angry with me?" she wrote in June 1945, by which time Howard was in Germany.
He allayed her fears with a surprise one-day visit (he had received permission to visit his wounded brother in a Paris hospital and made a detour to Normandy). "I didn't know if he had any hair," Mrs. Gillingham laughs. "I had never seen him without his helmet."
And then he was shipped back to the States, where he found work repairing agricultural machinery. Jeaninne went back to her letter writing. "Here it is cold and raining, I sure don't like that," she wrote in November 1945. "It is the winter that begin and I fear that it may be necessary to spend it without to see you, my heart is melancholy. I have always known you in the fine days of summer."
Eighteen months later, Howard had converted to Catholicism and saved up the money to come back to France and marry Jeaninne. The wedding "was a big to-do. Everybody came out to see that." Then he brought her back home.
America was a shock, and not always a pleasant one. Howard's first treat for his new bride - a hamburger and malted milk in New York - did not go down very well. "I didn't think too much of that. I was used to good fancy French restaurants."
And the dress code in rural Iowa took some getting used to. "I felt lost," Jeaninne remembers. "Where were all the beautiful hats, the pretty dresses? Howard took me to buy a pair of jeans and when I had put them on he threw a bucket of water over me. I had no idea what was happening."
Jeaninne and Howard spent 14 years in the US before returning with their children to Normandy to take over the Massey family cafe in Le Molay Littry. "It was hard. Americans don't leave just like that. We had the house and furniture paid for. It was kind of rough" to pull up stakes, Mrs. Gillingham recalls.
Howard never learned to speak French properly before he died and it never really bothered him, nor any of his cafe's customers. This week the cafe and the town's main newsstand - both run by Jeaninne's sons - are sporting red, white, and blue in the windows, and a lot of photos of Howard Gillingham. "I am proud to be French and American," Mrs. Gillingham says as she looks wistfully at one of those photos. "I fight for both sides."