Longform

Foreign Correspondence

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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."

He told of attending a Mass "in a little Catholic Church filled with people who had survived the recent fighting, and a marble plaque on the wall said that this church had been erected on the ruins of the one burned and destroyed by les Allemands in September 5th, 1914. On the wall of this room is a German calendar advertising 'Eutra,' a canned milk, and the month designation is Februar, so you see we have reminders that the enemy was here. In the darkroom adjoining we are using captured photographic supplies... all recently property of the German army, taken in battle by the 42nd Division."

Coming through the Rhone Valley, "We passed through hundreds of little villages and several large cities," he wrote, "and everywhere, at all hours, school children, little boys rolling hoops, peasants trimming their vineyards, old men in wooden shoes driving two-wheeled oxcarts, women young and old riding bicycles, all of them looking up, smiling, waving and signaling the 'V.' Some of the men, who doubtless fought in the last war, straightened and gave us the French salute, palm of the hand out. One old fellow pushing a heavily loaded bicycle grinned and gesticulated wildly, pointing toward the front, and going through the motions of 'mowing 'em down.' I'm afraid I must confess that all this attention -- almost adulation -- made us feel almost like 'heroes.' Made us feel proud, and realize that we had come here for a real and worthwhile purpose."

For Creasman, the serenity of the surrounding landscape -- "neat fields, nearly always small, with tall poplars green against the sky along the fences as windbreaks" -- seemed disconnected from the roadside wreckage left by the war.

The highways, he wrote, "are invariably lined on both sides with sycamores, precisely pruned, beautifully spaced with a ruler, it seems. One can imagine how lovely these roads will be when all the trees have their leaves and touch in an arch overhead for hundreds of miles. And the vineyards! Just now putting out long tender new shoots which the keepers are busy trimming, and right behind them are women bundling up the twigs to be used as firewood, I suppose. The French waste absolutely nothing. In one field I actually saw an almost perfect reproduction in real life of the famous painting of 'the Gleaners' -- women picking up little branches in a wood and putting them in baskets...."

On the road itself, "we saw wrecked German equipment, strewn for miles, thousands of trucks overturned and burned, huge cannons, deadly 88's with stripes around the barrels indicating American tanks knocked out, now hopelessly smashed and abandoned, wicked looking tanks with the black swastikas still showing, German helmets on the ground, one hanging on a little wood cross."

Every so often, to jam memorable scenes into his letters, he simply scribbled out snapshots with words: "a woman herding geese with a stick; a little boy shoveling snow with a wooden shovel; beautiful lace curtains in windows, draped and stretched very tight in many different fashions... everywhere rivers running brim full because of the spring thaw. France is full of rivers and everywhere the bridges have been blown up, beautiful old stone bridges with fine arches lying in heaps; and gruesome reminders that war has passed through here -- dead cattle and horses still lying where they fell, recently uncovered by melting snows...

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow