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July is an especially patriotic month for the citizens of two countries–the United States and France. That’s when both countries celebrate their freedom and independence, each in its own unique and joyful way.
For the French, it all began on July 14, 1789, when a mob of downtrodden French people stormed the Bastille, a fortress-like Paris prison. Soon afterwards, the fearful Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette escaped to Versailles while angry mobs destroyed homes of the nobility in Paris. To the French, Bastille Day signifies the end of an oppressive monarchy and the beginning of a free republic.
Excerpts from Chapter 12, “Meetings in France, Germany, and Italy,” of A Salute to Patriotism: The Life and Work of Major General Howard L. Peckham (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0966585550/):
As his days in France were drawing to a close, my father expressed more and more his appreciation to the French for having cooperated well with his command, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC). He personally thanked many people who had visited American cemeteries, such as Épinal, to honor our fallen soldiers by reciting prayers in churches near the cemeteries and by placing bouquets of flowers near the gravesites.
The French of course admired their own military heroes, those presently serving in their army and those lost in battle. This pride seemed most evident on Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison by livid French citizens and the start of the French Revolution.
The biggest Bastille Day celebration since the beginning of World War II was held on July 14, 1949, and it bounded into the city like a jolly traveling circus. On the preceding evening, people already started celebrating. Beginning at around six o’clock, Paris took on the atmosphere of a country festival. Lanterns and flags hung gaily on apartment balconies and from windows. On the outside of nearly all the corner cafés, orchestra stands seemed to jump onto the pavement. At seven o’clock, the city fathers marched—along with columns of Paris police and Republican Guards—to the Arc de Triomphe, where they laid a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. By nine o’clock, tables at cafés that provided live music were fully occupied. Street dancing went on until dawn.
I didn’t dance until dawn, but I did watch the parade as it traveled down the Champs Élysées the following day. These are only a few of the words I wrote in my diary: “The parade was really spectacular. I especially liked the Moroccan troops who, dressed in white turbans and capes, rode by on horseback, blowing trumpets.”
The fountains and edifices were beautifully lighted that night, and the fireworks cascaded magnificently across the summer sky with rainbow-hued streaks of light. I remember skipping and dancing on the cobblestone streets of the Left Bank until two o’clock in the morning with a group of American college students. Hundreds of Parisians were doing the same thing, perhaps for the second night in a row. They wanted to enjoy every minute of this day, the biggest and happiest Bastille Day since the end of the war.
The French joyfully welcomed this long-anticipated celebration partly because their defeat in World War II had been so humiliating. A teacher of mine at the American Community School, Madame Marguerite Dubus, didn’t let her class forget how well trained her country’s soldiers were, in spite of their capitulation. “Our soldiers got good training and fought well. They didn’t have all the good equipment the Americans had,” she reminded us.
She was basically correct, especially about that last part. France didn’t have the economic advantages of the United States, which placed that country in a defensive rather than offensive position at the beginning of the war. Later, the Germans destroyed much of their best equipment.
Even if they sometimes envied American military might and economic prosperity, the French people my parents met seemed eager to maintain a good relationship with the Americans who lived in France and with American citizens in the United States who had sent them food, clothing, and other gifts after the war.
Their appreciation was visibly demonstrated in Paris on January 7, 1949, when a train composed of forty-nine small boxcars left the city. The cars were filled with such items as cheeses, fruits, vases, works of art, books, and various items the French people themselves had made. After a band played The Star-Spangled Banner and the Marseillaise, a young girl blew the departure whistle, and the train went on its way. The boxcars were shipped from Le Havre to the United States, where they were greeted happily by the states through which they traveled.
[As reported by The Stars and Stripes on January 8, 1949, my father was one of the officials who gave the train, called the Merci Train, a big send-off.]
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