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North African Experience

by Leo Inglesby

Starting that night, C-47 Army transport aircraft began arriving in large numbers. By the next evening, almost forty would be dispersed around the field. Late the next afternoon came the actual word: the operation was on. As if to seal the decision, each of us was ceremoniously issued a small waterproof packet called an escape kit. We were told that under no circumstances could we open them unless absolutely necessary. Later on, it became necessary although not exactly absolutely.

That evening, orders came down for us to get into our parachutes, get into the planes and let’s get going. This word came about the same time the twin engines of all the planes began to turn over. We took our places on the bucket seats lining both sides of the plane, and eventually the plane started its move toward and then down the runway. It was nearly midnight by the time the plane was aloft. The important thing was that we were finally on our way.

The flight plan was to take us across the Bay of Biscay, then south across Spain - there would be diplomatic complaints - and over the Mediterranean to our destination beyond Oran, the Tafaroui airfield. At that point, as planned, it would be "out the door you go and lots or luck." So much for this well-laid plan.

Even before Gibraltar, a heavy ground fog set in, and a promised and clandestine radio direction beam never was picked up. There had been a mix-up on the frequencies. The rain began to hit the plane in sheets. In the back, we followed the pilots instruction to put on our seat belts. Within the hour, the plane encountered violent turbulence. The pilot told us that during the turbulence his visibility was absolutely zero, and his altimeter was descending at a rate of a thousand feet per minute. He later determined that this was happening while crossing the Atlas Mountains. Some of us, he said, possessed very charmed lives. For us in the back, we all prayed for an end to being tossed around and, especially, an end to the air sickness caused by the plane’s wild motion.

Gradually, the plane settled back to normal as it flew through the storm and as the darkness gave way to dawn. By the pilot’s reckoning, we could be almost anywhere except where we ought to have been. The storm had blown him in every direction; he had never been more lost. Actually, the landscape below us looked like the middle of Nevada. The pilot concluded that below us was the Sahara Desert.

After a short while the message came back to us that his gas was getting so low that it would be safer for us to jump rather than risk a crash landing on that rocky surface. Accordingly, we gathered up our gear and hooked up our static lines to the overhead cable. As we started to shuffle toward the mid-cabin exit door, the co-pilot yelled for us the hold up.

From the open door we could see why he shouted. There below us, appearing like a Hollywood set out of the movie Beau Geste, was a square-shaped high-walled fortress-like structure flying at its corner the tri-colored flag of France. The pilot made out the outlines of a landing strip, banked the plane sharply, and glided in for a smooth and bumpless landing. Our 1,500 mile flight was over.

We didn’t have to wait long before the gate of the fort opened. There emerged a heavy-set mustachioed senior non-com who strolled up to the open door. Greeting him was the only member of the planeload that spoke French, Private Rosario Cyr, our assigned medic. Our pilot, the senior officer abroad, told Cyr to tell him that we were on a training flight and got lost. To which the non-com just grunted. He told us we were to be prisoners, to leave all weapons in the plane and follow him. As if to lend authority to his orders, we looked beyond him at the long column of Berbers which seemed to be coming from beyond the fort. Each of the riders was carrying a long rifle generally pointed in our direction. None of us had any problem complying with, what we thought, were very constructive suggestions.

Not that it counted for much but our planeload included our company first sergeant, an "old army" spit and polish type, who marched us smartly into captivity. I was sure it never entered his mind that we were the first Americans to be captured by the French since General Braddock’s failed attempt to capture Fort Duquesne, against George Washington’s, advice back in 1764.

We found out that the name of the place was Ksar es Souk which in Arabic means a fortified market place. Our captors were a detachment of, as they called themselves, Le Legion Étrangères – or, as known to old Laurel and Hardy fans, the French Foreign Legion. We had just about been shown our quarters (the Geneva Convention wouldn’t allow cells) when, in accordance with the practice of armies world-wide, we were given a schedule of activities . . . typed in French.

Right from the beginning, we got along famously with our guards especially because we showed a free hand with our "cigarettes Americain." In exchange, they let us try their Gauloise cigarettes. None of us had the courage to try a second one. Our food was good. It was the first time any of us ever had cous cous which later became a North African favorite of mine. The meat was of unknown origin - camel was suspected. It was very tasty and helping to make it so was the excellent wine that came with it. We all settled in for a comfortable stay.

Naturally, our guards had been strictly cautioned against fraternizing with prisoners. We, too, with the guards. It took no time for each group to realize that our interests were common. Almost hourly, we would get bulletins on how "les Boches" were being defeated at Stalingrad. Their real scope was that an armistice was being discussed in Algiers between the French commanders and the Allied invaders. Some army units were still holding out in support of the Vichy government, but only because, like in armies everywhere, the message is often slow in coming.

There was little about Ksar es Souk that would suggest that it was a much sought after post. I’m sure that time hung heavily on their hands. And then from out of the blue came "les Americains." In their desire to make something out of nothing the whole guard force decided that our mild mannered Pfc. Henry Wilburn was actually "le cinema artiste Americain Caesar Romero." Now, mon dieu, they finally had something to write home about. Much embarrassed, Henry didn’t like the idea, but, being a good sport he played along.

We never got a chance to leave our quarters. Then again, I’m not too sure that there would have be anything to see even if we did. Our guards broke the news that our stay with them was nearly over based on the news reports they were getting from Algiers and Casablanca radio stations. Nevertheless, our friendly first sergeant insisted on daily excersises and long sessions of close order drill. Our guards seemed to be much impressed except they thought that only mad dogs would act as we did in that hot noonday sun.

When not otherwise engaged - which was most of the time - we played auction bridge using the back of the schedule sheet posted by the French as our score sheet. It was the only souvenir that I was able to bring back from my short stay as a "prisonnier de guerre."

The guard’s big peace news was soon officially confirmed by our captors who then facilitated our departure - after our five days of confinement by digging up a hundred gallon drum that they had stashed away to keep out of German hands. We bid emotional adieus - I blush to say there were hugs and, excuse me, kisses. But you know how the French are. We loaded up and the pilot set out for Oran.

While en route, the pilot radioed ahead and was told to fly directly to Casablanca. Arriving there, his plane was immediately preempted for emergency airlift purposes which left the rest of us stranded at the airport. We set up living space in one of the French Air Force hangers. With not much else to do until our plane would be made available for the flight to Oran. Bob Daves and I went into Casablanca. After a particularly good dinner, Bob and I were pleasantly surprised to find that a voiture, a horse and carriage taxi, was most conveniently standing at the curb. We jumped in and told the driver our destination.

We became aware of some very loud profanity, in an American accent, directly in back of us. Something or other about whose taxi it was. As we pulled away, I heard a brick whiz by my ear which caught our Arab driver behind his head. He immediately started wailing - loud enough to attract two big military policemen. It was our misfortune that these two were Ninth Division MPs - the same folks we had messed with at Fort Bragg. Into the clink went Bob and I to spend a bitterly cold and sleepless night. Next morning, we were let go with a long lecture on how we should respect blah, blah, blah.

Since we didn’t leave England carrying a lot of ready cash, we decided to explore the contents of our escape kit. Sure enough! We struck it rich! In addition to a rubber encased three-inch hacksaw blade, there were two water-proof maps of all of North Africa (neither of them showed Ksar Souk), twenty-four American dollars, a hundred francs, and two fifty-franc gold coins. Also, a letter in arabic, french and english saying I was worth mega-bucks if returned safely to our army. We stashed the gold coins, but allocated the rest of the monies for expending on useful necessities - like food, etc.

Following our overnight stay with the Ninth Division MPs, our somewhat testy first sergeant ordered us to stay at the airfield because we were due to fly out at daybreak to rejoin our outfit. He had learned that it was billeted near Algiers. With nothing to do and nothing to read we were real pleased to learn that the French Air Force maintained a kind of PX on the other side of the airfield.

A visit there seemed to us to be a good idea so off we went to explore. After having been both incarcerated both by the Foreign Legion an then by the Ninth Division we had fallen far behind in the news. We had no way of knowing what a complete pasting the French had received in Casablanca, nearby Fort Lyautey and Oran. Included in the pasting were local elements of the French Air Force.

We crossed over the airfield to where the French were quartered, and, with as much nonchalance as we could manage, we strolled into an exceedingly large and noisy auditorium. It smelled of splashed red wine and the eyewatering bouquet of french cigarettes. Almost immediately upon our entrance, the loud babble of voices hushed. Totally. We couldn’t help but feel an atmosphere of menace. But in minutes, curiosity prevailed - we later learned that we were the first Americans to have contact with them. First individuals and, then, twos and threes and eventually we were in the middle of a large group exchanging buying rounds of vin rouge at three francs a liter. It wasn’t long before genuinely good conversational exchanges prevailed - all based upon our high school french and their similar level of english. It was amazing how our mutual levels of understanding increased as our escape kits francs kept dwindling.

Generally, we agreed that recent events came under the heading of "C’EST LA GUERRE"; it was good that we were now friends and allies. Having now settled all outstanding problems, it became necessary to bring "fini" to "les Boches." Since closing time was near, the French suggested we sing our nation anthem. The really bad mistake was in our agreeing. Our quavering and mangled version of the Star Spangled Banner - or as much as we could remember - was as bad as you can imagine it was. Our finish was less than a rousing one. A patter of polite applause acknowledged our efforts.

The French said that in view of this, our first meeting, and the first joining with American soldiers in song, they would respond with their own national anthem. In my view, I think that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir might be able to render the Marseillaise with more polish, but in a lifetime of trying I’m sure they could never duplicate the emotion these airmen poured into this great French rallying anthem. For a moment or two, Bob and I weren’t sure we would be getting out of that PX alive.

Later, we agreed that it would be foolish of us to relate the night’s events to our grumpy first sergeant. We preferred to think of ourselves as helping to bridge the gap between the two national forces that were about to become allies. He would never understand that.

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Copyright © 1997 Patrick O'Donnell