Readings — From the June 2014 issue

Army of Shadows

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From a memoir written in 1944 by Marcelle Hamel-Hateau, a schoolteacher in the Norman village of Neuville-au-Plain, included in D-Day Through French Eyes, by Mary Louise Roberts, published last month by the University of Chicago Press. Translated from the French.

In the month of June, the days no longer have an end and the night is really a long twilight. Around ten p.m. this Monday, the fifth of June, I have just gone to bed next to my mother. We both sleep on a daybed that we open every night in the common room. Since the evacuation of Cherbourg, we have given our bedroom to my grandparents. The daybed faces the window, wide-open on the night. I take a moment to reflect on the end of this beautiful day. With sadness I think of a similar June night in 1940 when my boyfriend, Jean, left to join the Free French. I had received news that he had landed in North Africa, so perhaps he was now in Italy? Perhaps it will be soon . . . I thought, but then refused to let my mind wander further.

Abruptly, the noise of airplanes breaks the night’s silence. We have gotten used to that sound. Since there are no military targets here and the railway is more than five miles away, we normally do not pay much attention. But the noise gets louder, and the sky begins to light up and turn red. I rise, and soon the whole family is up as well. We go out into the courtyard. There is only the distant murmur of a bombardment in the direction of Quinéville. Yet there seems to be an endless number of planes mysteriously roaming about; their engines create an incessant hum. Then the noise becomes vague and distant. “It’s just like the last time,” says my mother, “when they had to bomb the blockhouse on the coast.” And we all go back to bed.

Mama goes to sleep right away. But I sit on my bed and continue to study the rectangle carved out by the window. The need to sleep slowly overwhelms me, but my eyes remain wide-open. It is in this sort of half sleep that I begin to see fantastic shadows, somber shapes against the clear blackness of the sky. Like big black umbrellas, they rain down on the fields across the way, and then disappear behind the black line of the hedges.

No, I am not dreaming. Grandma also saw them from the window of the bedroom. I wake up Mama and my aunt. We hurriedly get dressed and go out into the courtyard. Once again, the sky is filled with a continuous, ever-intensifying hum. The hedgerows are alive with a strange crackling sound. Monsieur Dumont, the neighbor across the street, a widower who lives with his three children, has also come out. He approaches us and shows me, hanging on the edge of the roof, a parachute.

An impatient curiosity is stronger than the fear that grips me. I make my way onto the road. At the fence of a neighboring field, a man sits on the edge of the embankment. He is harnessed with big bags and armed from head to foot: rifle, pistol, and some sort of knife. He makes a sign for me to approach him. In English I ask if his plane was shot down. He says no and in a low voice shoots back: “It’s the big invasion . . . Thousands and thousands of paratroopers are landing in this countryside tonight.” His French is excellent. “I am an American soldier, but my mother is a Frenchwoman from the Basses-Pyrénées.” I ask him, “What is going on along the coast? Are there landings? And what about the Germans?” I am babbling: my emotions overwhelm my thoughts. Ignoring my questions, he asks me about the proximity of the enemy. I reassure him: “There are no Germans here; the closest troops are stationed in Sainte-Mère-Église, almost two kilometers away.”

The American tells me he would like to look at his map in a place where the glow of his flashlight will not be easily spotted. He follows us, limping; he explains that he sprained his ankle on landing. In the classroom he removes one of his three or four satchels, tears off the sticky little bands that sealed it, and takes out the maps. He spreads one out on a desk; it is a map of the region. He is astonished to discover how far he is from his targets: the railway tracks and the little river bordering the Neuville swamp toward the west. I show him the road to follow in order to meet his comrades. He looks at his watch. It is 11:20 p.m. He folds up his map, removes any trace of his presence, and, after taking some chocolate out of his pocket and giving it to the children, who are so flabbergasted they forget to eat, he leaves us. He is perfectly calm and self-controlled, but the hand I shake is a little sweaty and stiff. I wish him luck in a voice that tries to be cheerful. And he adds — in English, so that only I can understand — “The days to come are going to be terrible. Good luck, mademoiselle, thank you, I will not forget you for the rest of my life.”

Suddenly, there is an extraordinary blaze of light. The horizon in the direction of the sea lights up as if reflecting an immense fire over the ocean. The black silhouettes of airplanes arrive through the clouds and turn around in the sky. One of them passes just above our little school; parachutes open and float down like a mass of bubbles in the clear night. At first, the parachutes seem carried by the wake of the plane; then they drop vertiginously downward; finally, the silk domes open. In a few moments, the sky is nothing more than an immense ballet of parachutes. The spectacle on the ground is no less extraordinary. From all corners of the countryside bursts of multicolored rockets shoot out as if thrown by invisible jugglers. In the fields around us, big black planes slide silently toward the earth. Like Flying Dutchmen, they land as if in a dream.

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