The Frenchman who fought Hitler as a US soldier
Bernard Dargols is one of the rare French nationals who took part in the Allied invasion of Normandy as a US soldier. He kept the story secret –even from his family– for decades. FRANCE 24 retells it on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Bernard Dargols was 18 years old when he first set his eyes on the radiant New York City skyline. His father had sent him to the United States for an internship at a sewing machine factory, where he was supposed to gain the experience needed to take over the family’s garment business one day in Paris.
However, the fall of France to German forces in 1940 would crush those plans, and marked the first step of Dargols’ amazing journey back to home.
Eager to return to France to combat the Nazi invaders, the young man – whose family was Jewish – sought out representatives of both the British Army and Free French Forces in the Big Apple.
“I couldn’t wait to fight,” Dargols remembered with a laugh in a recent interview with FRANCE 24.
After Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and encouraged by co-workers at the sewing machine factory, he enlisted at a US army draft board.
The secret Camp Ritchie
Dargols’ training began in Fort Dix in nearby New Jersey. Next, he was sent to the sprawling Camp Croft in South Carolina for boot camp. It was there that an officer realised that Dargols’ knowledge of the French language, and of France’s geography and culture, were his best weapons against Hitler.
The Frenchman’s career as a member of Military Intelligence began at Camp Ritchie, a secret army base in the state of Maryland that no longer exists. “When I entered the camp I had to sign a document pledging to never reveal its existence, even to my wife,” he said.
At the camp, Dargols learned all there was to know about the German military: its structure, weapons and machinery. Months went by as he learned by heart the names of German divisions and tanks. The war was still thousands of kilometres away, but slowly the soldier was gaining the skills that would be instrumental in helping Allied forces reclaim his native land.
Meanwhile, the war had split up his family back home. His father and two younger brothers secured a travel visa to Cuba, but his mother chose to stay in Paris to care for her ailing parents and in-laws. An uncle was rounded up by French police in league with the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz.
Dargols and his unit were finally sent to Britain, in December 1943. An Allied landing in France felt close at hand, but the soldiers would still have to wait almost six more months for their rendezvous with history.
“Rumors ran wild, ‘we invade tomorrow, tomorrow’s the day’, but they were never true. But one day they told us to stop writing letters home, and they told us not to expect any more mail. Then our food, which was always abundant but not very good, suddenly got better. We knew then it was going to happen,” the veteran recalled.
Dargols and his team, attached to the 2nd Infantry Division, hit French soil on June 8, 1944 – two days into the heroic Allied storming of Normandy. Their target was the so-called “Easy Red” sector at Omaha Beach.
“We landed in the middle of a bombing barrage that I will never forget,” Dargols said, “US gunships were bombarding over our heads, causing some casualties among the civilian population, but so that we could get our footing in France more easily.”
He went on to participate in the liberation of several Norman towns. His usual task was one fraught with danger: scout out towns in enemy lines, quizzing residents on the whereabouts of German soldiers, their weapons and fuel caches; he would then slip back through the frontline and deliver the vital information to his commanding officers.
Earning a short leave in September 1944 he rushed to Paris, where he found his mother beleaguered, with “no tears left to cry”, by the horrors of the war.
His father’s shop had been usurped by a businessman friendly with the Nazi occupiers.
40 years of secrecy
With World War II over less than a year later, Dargols was ordered to return to the US. There he married his sweetheart Françoise, a Frenchwoman he had met in New York before being shipped off across the Atlantic. Eventually they returned to Paris to rebuild their lives and start a family.
While the people closest to Dargols were aware that he had served in the US Army, he kept true to his oath to never reveal his training and exploits as a member of US Military Intelligence. It was only 40 years after the war had ended that he revealed part of his story to French officials.
Fellow veteran friends from the United States wanted to take part in D-Day commemorations on the coast of Normandy in 1984, so Dargols got them a front row seat by revealing to French ceremony organisers what their, and his, role had been during the Normandy campaign.
In 2004, a documentary called “The Ritchie Boys” by German director Christian Bauer, highlighted some of the soldiers that trained at the secret camp, fully disclosing its mission.
Dargols has since welcomed the opportunity to recount his tale, and taken a special interest in speaking to students about the atrocities of the war and the Nazi-organised Holocaust. He had lost an uncle and aunt to the mass extermination campaign. His younger brother Simon, who had also joined the US Army, was among the soldiers who liberated a concentration camp in southern Germany.
“Thirteen year old kids, how can they believe it happened? Even older people, extremist politicians, begin to doubt. ‘How can you kill people that way, even children? It’s not possible.’ I have to tell them, yes it is possible, I’ve seen it!” he said with a fighting spirit that has not been lost within his slim, 94-year-old frame.
In 2012 his granddaughter, Caroline Jolivet, compiled his memories, as well as dozens of family letters and photos, into a book: “Bernard Dargols: A French GI at Omaha Beach.”
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