My Night in Paris

As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny

January 1945

I arrived in Paris, delivered supplies for allied officers staying at the Chateau Rothschild, and was directed to remain at the chateau until my new orders arrived (See previous post, Over There). My unit, the 404th Fighter Group, was in Belgium and cut off by German panzers in the Battle of the Bulge.

I bathed with ample hot water and perfumed soap—neither of which I’d known during the depression—then slipped on my best uniform to join the other officers in the chateau ballroom.

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Chateau Rothschild as it appears today. After the war, it was never reoccupied

Generals and admirals surrounded by senior staff officers and spike-heeled French ladies stood and talked under the high-vaulted ceiling. Red-uniformed Algerian staff brought trays of hors d’oeuvres and drinks, wine and champagne.

A tuxedoed, string quartet played in one corner of the ballroom. A lavish buffet on one wall offered assorted breads, cheeses and caviar, followed by sliced pork, duck, and salmon carved and served by the Algerian staff.

When none of the groups opened a space for me, I went to the bar for a beer. I selected an Alsatian brand over the caramel-dark concoction the bartender said the Germans preferred.

“Those hobnobs got in last week,” said a Midwest accent behind me. The Army Air Corps Captain had silver pilot’s wings on his jacket and a glass of dark beer in his hand.

I tipped my bottle toward the multi-starred uniforms and their girlfriends. “I guess you’re not with them?”

He shook his head. “I’m at Beauvais with the 322nd Bomb Group. Came down to speed up supply … but this is useless. Only supply these desk jockeys worry about is whiskey and champagne. Heard they skedaddled out of Brussels soon as the panzers rolled over the border.”

“I just got in, escorted a dozen cases of Scotch here from England.”

“That’s explains how you ended up here.” He took a pull on his beer. “How about we grab a bite and I show you the town.”

Charlie flew the A-26 Marauder, medium bomber, and had been in the war since D-Day. He was also from Toledo and a Detroit Tiger fan, so we talked about Hank Greenberg, their first baseman, and agreed that Ty Cobb was a greater ball player than Babe Ruth.

Charlie’s favorite part of Paris was an area near Sacré-Cœur at the foot of Montmartre. He said it was called Place Pigalle and there was a metro stop. I later found out US servicemen since World War One had called it “Pig Alley,” the famous red light district. Even though it wasn’t my idea, I didn’t tell Phyl this story until years later.

It was close to midnight, but all the city lights were on. Paris is known as The City of Light. The street was jammed with servicemen of all ranks and all services, and in all states of intoxication. They stumbled about—in spite of the cutting winter wind—bottles in hand, shouting, singing, hanging on each other and on skimpily dressed women.

I looked on in silence as we walked. Charlie read my expression, laughed, and pointed to a narrow, open doorway down a short flight of steps.

In the dim light and blue tobacco smoke, I saw high-heeled, naked legs kicking from a row of stools. Charlie pushed me in. The bar on the narrow back wall provided most of the light. Candles on small round tables provided the rest.

We grabbed an empty table in the corner. A small Frenchman in a red-striped shirt took an empty bottle from the table and brought two glasses. Charlie ordered a bottle of Bordeaux and offered a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in exchange.

Most of the customers were boisterous young Americans in want of decent bathing. A sultry woman sang a mournful French tune and leaned over a black piano player.

I shrank into the corner. Charlie patted my shoulder. “Relax, Ed, this may be the only R&R you get.” He shook a pack of Luckies at me until one emerged. I lit it off the table candle and took a draw. The waiter showed Charlie the Bordeaux label, poured our glasses half full, and left the bottle. My first night in Paris, I thought, sipping my wine and taking another draw on my cigarette.

“Hey you, flyboy,” a gruff voice blasted over the crowd. The place got quiet. I looked up. “Yah, you.” A beefy, infantry sergeant pointed his ham-like fist at me. Charlie backed away. The piano player stopped. The chanteuse shifted to lean on the piano, eyes curious.

“You’re a fighter pilot, aren’t ya?” He was Polish. I knew the accent.

“Yes,” I cleared my throat, “I am.” I hadn’t flown a minute in combat, but I was a certified fighter pilot.

“P-47?”

“Right.” Charlie shifted his chair further away. The big sergeant pushed his table back and crossed the room in four steps.

“This pilot,” he shouted back to the room then checked my nametag, “Lieutenant Kenny here, he saved my sorry ass.” He wrapped his ball-mitt-size fists around my upper arms, lifted me out of my seat, and set me on the bar. I’d leaned down since basic but still weighed 160 pounds and stood six feet tall.

Sergeant Pulaski pointed to the bar’s top shelf. “I want to buy Lieutenant Kenny a drink, the best in the place.” He then turned to the room. “I’m going to tell all of you our little story, and I want you to listen.”

Chairs rattled as they turned toward us. The bartender stepped onto a stool and brought down a dusty, black bottle. He wiped it with his apron then twisted off the cork and set and filled two glasses. The sergeant handed one to me and took the other.

“Me, my wife, my three kids, and all my friends here,” he waved his glass to the soldiers who raised their glasses, “we thank you and all P-47 pilots. God bless you.” He tossed it back. I did the same and coughed at the burn.

“Good, huh?” he growled and squeezed my arm.

“Reeeal smooth,” I said, hardly able to draw a breath.

The Sergeant leaned into the room and fixed each customer with his gaze. “You boys in the 1st Infantry, you know we stopped ’em at Elsenborn Ridge. That’s why them Nazzzi’s decided to go south through Bastogne.” All the soldiers nodded solemnly. “I was in town, in the rubble of the courtyard, cleanin’ up whatever we mighta missed. A shell exploded, splintering the stone wall behind me. A pillar fell, raining slabs of concrete that blocked the courtyard rear exit. At the entrance, stones and gravel slid from a buried Tiger tank. Its big ‘88’ cranked and ratcheted toward me while machinegun bullets rattled and ricocheted, keeping me pinned.” The Sergeant scanned the room and dropped his voice low. “I said my prayer, and I said goodbye to Maria as I watched through a crack in the stone.”

The Sergeant suddenly pointed to the ceiling at the back of the room and shouted, “There he was, high in the sky behind the Tiger, Lieutenant Kenny in his P-47.” The Sergeant’s hands and arms brought his words to life. “He winged over and swooped down like an eagle from heaven. I hardly breathed as I watched that sweet five-hundred-pounder drop away—watched it plunge into the Tiger’s engine compartment. Kaboom! I ducked. The turret bounced past me.” He turned to the bar and shook me with both hands.

Cheers went up. Other soldiers slapped my back. All evening, they bought Charlie and me drinks. We stumbled to the metro just before dawn.

Back at the chateau, Charlie thanked me for a great evening. He said this was his last night and wished me luck. By the time I got up for breakfast, he’d already left. I never heard what became of him.

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2 thoughts on “My Night in Paris”

  1. These are great stories, Keith! I really enjoy them. I had uncles who served during WWII. They didn’t share their stories, and I’m sorry they didn’t. They saw things that were terrible. One, who served in the navy, mentioned to my father that his ship was damaged by bombs. He and other sailors carried wounded and dead out of the damage, sometimes just pieces of men. I wish all of those stories had been taken down for posterity. These you share are truly historic gems.

    Like

    1. Thanks very much John. Everyone is not a storyteller, but my Dad was, and he had some great stories. Most of them are human interest but a few were traumatic. I’ll get to those.

      Like

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