At first the vanguard was just a few recon vehicles, jeeps and trucks. Then came more.
Soon there was a thin column of 16,000 men on motorcycles, trucks, tanks and armored cars that was miles long constrained by the straight and narrow French country roads.
They were the U.S. 3rd Armored Division, nicknamed “Spearhead,” and led by Maurice Rose, America’s highest ranking Jewish general. He was 45, tall, handsome and considered by many the best division commander in the army. They received a hero’s welcome, big smiles and grateful kisses from the thousands of French people lining the road.
The end of World War II was still over a year away when the liberation started on June 6, 1944 — D-Day. That’s the day the Americans, British and Canadians invaded the northern coast of France at Normandy. Though they quickly established a foothold, it took several more weeks to build up enough strength to rupture the line of German divisions hemming them in. This push, the famed Cobra Breakout, started on July 25.
By Aug. 18, it turned into an almost complete encirclement (at Falaise) of the German forces in the area. They retreated as quickly as possible, but still left behind many tanks, artillery and 50,000 men. The rout was on.
On Aug. 15, about 200,000 American and French troops invaded southern France roughly between Cannes and St. Tropez. There was comparatively little resistance. They moved inland quickly and by late August, they were racing north along the valley of the Rhone River.
Also by mid-August, Paris was in sight of the Allied troops coming from Normandy. Though Gen. Eisenhower disagreed, the Free French moved to liberate Paris. The Americans joined in the effort.
Paris was the scene of fascinating negotiations between Mayor Pierre Taittinger (yes, of champagne fame), Raoul Nordling and German General Dietrich von Choltitz and scattered fighting for six days, but by Aug. 25, 1944, it was all over.
Paris was free. It erupted in the biggest explosion of joy it had ever seen and a grand military parade down the gorgeous Champs Elysees.
The U.S. 3rd Armored Division crossed the Seine River 30 miles southeast of Paris at Melun on Aug. 25th, and then moved very quickly northeast. Two days later, it liberated my mother’s village of Saints and many others.
My mother, not yet 3, remembers watching the 3rd Armored Division stream by. She was handed up to the tankers and received chocolate. Another friend fondly remembers the passing tankers tossing out chewing gum, which they had never seen.
Yet another recalled her father driving her family along a road of liberation the next day and seeing all along the roadside so many hastily buried soldiers, their forearms protruding shockingly from the soil and their clenched fists holding their dog tags.
The Americans passed through very quickly. For a while, they kept accelerating as leaders such as Patton and Rose made some of the quickest military movements in history. It looked like the war could be over quickly. Then logistical issues ground them to a halt.
The Germans regrouped, winter intervened and there was the Battle of the Bulge, etc. The war would drag on until May 8/9, 1945 in Europe, and many more would suffer in the process.
I always wonder what happened to those boys who liberated my family and France and the rest of Western Europe. I wouldn’t exist without them. Nor would my children. The 3rd Armored Division suffered 2,540 men killed; among them was Gen. Rose, shot in Germany on March 31, 1945, making him the highest ranking American killed in combat in Europe. Another 7,300 were wounded.
There were over 10,000 Purple Hearts, 3,800 Bronze Stars, 885 Silver Stars, etc. That was just one division. There were millions of U.S. men over there. I’ve been honored to meet and thank some, like Atlanta’s Frederick Scheer, who just celebrated his 90th birthday last month, and Smyrna’s Ed LaPorta, Sr., who passed away last year. We lose thousands of our World War II veterans every day.
But to any of those American soldiers reading this, and to all their descendants, thank you. You are not forgotten, and we are eternally grateful.
Narayan Sengupta owns a website development firm, is a past president of the Smyrna Rotary Club and is the author of several books about World Wars I and II.