By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
The 12-day journey to France left many men "carrying their helmets with them in order not to mess up the decks.... Seas have been rather choppy at times," he wrote, "but today the long slow swells were almost oily smooth and a breathtaking cobalt blue under a bright sun. I viewed the whole panorama from the bridge of the ship today while the band played a concert down on the deck and the men crowded around to listen."
Creasman's transport followed a course similar to the one David Murdock's had sailed more than two years earlier. It headed for the Atlantic coast of Africa, but, instead of landing there, it slipped north through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, then turned toward the southern coast of France. The change reflected Allied progress in the war.
Germany's power was at its peak when Murdock sailed. The Nazi realm stretched from northern Europe south through France, Italy and around the Mediterranean to parts of North Africa. It reached across Eastern Europe, north through Poland, and northeastward to the outskirts of Stalingrad, in the Soviet Union. Through 1943 and 1944, Allied and Soviet forces had steadily pushed German troops back toward their own borders, shrinking their domain. By January 1945, large parts of France, including its Mediterranean coast, had been reclaimed by the Allies. Creasman and the Rainbow Division were headed for Marseilles, which the Allies had turned into a main line for troops, armaments and supplies headed for the fronts in southeastern France.
"I saw the famous rock early one morning." Creasman wrote about passing Gibraltar. "I looked over at the mountains along the Spanish coast and thought how I would like to travel there. Also saw the coast of Spanish Morocco.... We passed Tangiers before dawn. I mused about the historical fact that Paul [the Apostle] traveled on the Mediterranean during his missionary journeys. And one clear, starry night on this bluest of seas I watched the slight phosphorescent glow of our bow wave and then -- thinking thoughts of you two -- saw the thin shell of a moon dip into the water astern.... Someday we shall make a pleasure cruise together and see all these things...."
Other elements of Creasman's division had begun arriving at Marseilles more than a month earlier. Many had already pushed north into action along the Rhone Valley toward Strasbourg.
Creasman had come out of basic training as a crack shot, with sharpshooter credentials. But he lucked into a relatively safe slot behind the front lines. Initially, he was attached to an ordinance company, loading and hauling materials and equipment.
In spare moments, he wrote home. He applied a foreigner's curiosity to everything he saw. And he drew upon his radio reporter's skills to delve below the surface of the people and places he encountered and describe the texture of life in the path of war.
"The streets are narrow and paved with cobblestones that show the wear of centuries," he wrote from Marseilles. "You see lots of two-wheeled carts. The tiny trolleys run coupled in twos and the people never seem to pay any fares, just run and climb on.... The city shows many scars as result of bombing. Little has been done yet to repair. Saw hotels many stories high simply sliced in two from roof to basement.
"But life continues -- mobs of it."
At the city's zoo, he found "hundreds of mothers and children sunning themselves. Some were playing in the sand with little wood buckets and shovels.... I saw more toys," he wrote weeks later, "than anywhere in France. Even tricycles and children's bicycles. It was good to see children playing."
Stores had merchandise in their windows but not much on the shelves. Food was scarce, he wrote home. Shop signs advised "people to sign up for cheese, eggs and fresh milk. [But] there just aren't any. In fact, the food situation is deplorable. People get about a pound of sugar every 3 months, about half a loaf of bread per day, almost no meat or fish, no vegetables. There is 1 egg a month (sometimes spoiled). I think they get 1/4 ton of coal per family to last the whole winter. There is milk for only babies less than 9 months of age. So they're cold and hungry.... But the people bear up well."
Scarcities and high prices had created a thriving black market and plenty of bartering for things like American cigarettes ("French people will pay 50 franc [about $1] for a pack...") and soap (another 50 francs a bar) or candy bars.
In early February, Creasman moved by truck convoy up the Rhone River Valley through Avignon, Lyon and Dijon, toward the Rainbow's front-line positions in Alsace-Lorraine on the western edge of the German border. By then, Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Essen, Düsseldorf and most other major German cities had been bombed nearly to dust. The Soviets were hammering at Germany's eastern front, pushing it swiftly back toward Berlin. All along the western front, from Holland to central France, American, British and Canadian troops were steadily destroying Germany's defenses protecting the Rhine.
Creasman was living the history, and his letters often displayed his keen sense of context. The Lorraine region, he wrote February 11, was a "part of France so long in dispute between the French and Germans. This ground has been fought over so many times -- in 1870-71, 1914, 1918, 1940 and 1944 -- that it shows many scars. This village has been beaten up six times in scarcely two generations."