October 6, 2014

1944. Bill Downs Runs Into Ernest Hemingway in Normandy

Updates from France
Mont Saint-Michel on August 8, 1944 (source)
In 1944 Bill Downs took some leave from covering the Western Front on the weekend of Friday, August 11 to Sunday, August 13. In this letter home he describes his experiences:
August 20, 1944

Dear Folks,

I finally got my two days leave. Went to a paradise called Mont St. Michel off the Brittany coast. Fantastic place. One island used to be a monastery in the 10th century and now caters to tourists. The people were still celebrating their liberation, and champagne and wine and brandy flow like water. Wonderful food and omelettes as big as a platter.

The press gravitated to it naturally, like flies to honey. Saw a lot of the boys and met Ernest Hemingway, who is now gathering information for another book about the French underground. He is quite a character and a very nice guy. The French people treated us like kings.

It is different in the American sector than the British. The towns are intact, and the people haven't lost their homes, so they suffered little. The head of the resistance movement in one town was a little guy who was the town veterinarian. He had spent the past four years blowing up German trains, cutting their telephone wires and such. He seemed almost sorry that he had to go back to treating horses and cows after all the excitement. His mother-in-law brought out some 50-year-old calvados for us to drink. It was in a wide bottomed flask with a narrow neck, and inside the flask were two big pears. It seems that she tied the flask over a branch of pears 50 years ago and they grew in the flask. She added the calvados—applejack to you—and there it was. Very good and strong enough to knock your hat off.

The mayor in this town also came up with some liquor champagne, which was something like 80 years old—fine brown sweetish stuff bottled in Napoleon's time. His daughter was the liaison officer for the whole underground army in Brittany. She was a dowdy looking red head but with a lot of guts. She had just been released after two months in a Gestapo prison. They knew she was in the underground but couldn't prove anything. So they turned her loose just before the invasion.

There were a lot of tears and everyone kissed on both cheeks, and singing of the national anthem of both countries. Very moving and sincere. However, after all the wine and liquor I consumed in two days, I really did need a rest when I got back. For the first time in I don't know when, I didn't have a birthday celebration. Worked all day, got into Falaise before it was captured. Narrowly missed being blown to hell by a mine and considerably shaken but came back with a good story.

The Germans are pulling out now, but no one knows exactly how far. They don't have a hell of a lot left in Western Europe, and with what the Russians are doing to them I don't think they can last long. However, they have created a lot of mad men who might do anything, including holding out until all of them are dead.

We're having some beautiful weather here and it has given the air forces time to do their stuff. They have been raising hell with the enemy. I've seen thousands of beat up German cars and trucks and carts. It's tough on the horses, and the stink is terrific in the forward areas. Also for the first time on the sector, the casualties are fairly light; don't see many bodies as formerly, which is good for everyone's morale. But there are more and more mines and booby traps and you have to watch your step more for them than any shells or mortars. Still a lot of snipers about, but no one pays much attention to them any more.

We probably will be moving forward pretty soon. Don't know exactly where, but I hope it will be in as nice a place as we have now. I hope to get into Paris, but it doesn't look like I'll cover the story of the fall of the city. I'm in the wrong army. Still there are other good stories on this front so I don't mind so much. They say there are something like five million people starving in Paris now. It shouldn't be too pleasant, but the reception should be terrific. It may be that we'll have to fight for the city, which would be tragic. I hope the Germans are smart enough to pull out of it. Otherwise the reprisals will be greatly intensified, and they must be thinking of those now.

Anyway, we'll have to wait and see. I have some work to do now, and I think I have a bath lined up later. I still have the blasted hives. But most of the time I'm too busy to scratch. I want to take over Gene's insurance, but I don't know how I can arrange it from here. You take care of it and let me know the cost every six months or so and I'll forward the money. If you need dough for anything else, just whistle. Take care of yourself and give my love to everyone.

Love, 
Bill