The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Paris was liberated during World War II, another invasion began

Keen to attach a coveted “Liberated Paris —” dateline to their dispatches, five Canadian newsmen threaded jeeps through French crowds “mad with happiness” on Aug. 24, 1944. Their destination: the fashionable (and aptly named) Hôtel Scribe, the newest Allied press camp on the march from Normandy to Berlin. Though Nazi propaganda officers had abandoned the hotel only earlier in the day, the journalists succeeded in broadcasting word of the city’s impending deliverance from the rooftop that night.

As recounted in historian Ronald Weber’s immersive “Dateline — Liberated Paris,” the Canadian reporters were the vanguard of an offbeat invasion force: By two months after D-Day, more than 900 Allied scribes had been accredited to cover the European theater. Some 200 of them infested the Scribe by sundown on Paris’s Liberation Day, Aug. 25. Soon the hotel lobby would be converted into a press room filled with telegraph machines and typewriters, their rapid-fire keystrokes mimicking the “machine-gun barrage” of champagne corks from the bar below. Within a month, recalled U.S. Army Lt. Col. Barney Oldfield, 250 “public-relations officers” (military speak for censors) had taken up blue pencils inside the hotel, “pawing over an average of more than 3,000,000 words . . . 35,000 still pictures, and 100,000 feet of movie film every seven days.”

Lingering gunfire understandably overheated some of those words. On Aug. 26, as bullets from Wehrmacht die-hards stippled the courtyard walls of the Ritz (its bar “liberated” by a grenade-festooned Ernest Hemingway the day before), the occupant of a “sinfully luxurious suite” upstairs was painting the City of Light in purple prose: “Paris today is Betty Grable on a bicycle and Billy the Kid on a bender,” wrote Ralph Allen, reporting for Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Paris is the Mona Lisa in a jeep and François Villon behind a Sten gun.… Paris today was partly itself at its best, partly Deadwood Gulch at its worst and partly Strauss’ Vienna at its most improbable.”

One woman who kissed him in the street, Allen reported, had laughed off the gunfire with patriotic sang-froid: “Why let a little shooting spoil a day like this?”

Other correspondents braved much more than the occasional embrace to get the story. They rode in open vehicles down narrow streets where sniper fire still rang out. Three American newsmen were captured and imprisoned in Germany until war’s end. Reuters correspondent William Stringer — that nominative determinism again — was killed by enemy fire on Aug. 17. Two days later, Thomas Treanor of the Los Angeles Times died when an American tank hit his jeep near Chartres.

Earlier in the year, Treanor had returned stateside from the Italian front to complete “One Damn Thing After Another: The Adventures of an Innocent Man Trapped Between Public Relations and the Axis.” The book’s subtitle captures the situation faced by every correspondent and photographer profiled in “Dateline” — notably Walter Cronkite, Iris Carpenter, Ernie Pyle, Virginia Cowles, Howard K. Smith, Robert Capa, Lee Miller, George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway’s third wife) and Mary Welsh (informed by Papa that she would inevitably be his fourth). Gellhorn’s work, recalled British censor Harold Acton, was “the best written and most vivid of the articles submitted to me.”

Reporters looked on helplessly as Acton and his fellow “pedantic spoilsports” sanitized stories for home-front consumption. No accounts of GIs fraternizing with German citizens, thank you. And not a whisper, please, about French youths counterfeiting Resistance armbands to loot and intimidate.

Given the various battlefront hazards, it’s a marvel any dispatch got through. Typescript had to be ferried to the nearest wireless transmission facility, so it routinely went MIA or got KIA. Such was the twin fate of a surefire front-page story written by Army Sgt. Andy Rooney 34 years before he surfaced as the eyebrow-waggling scold of “60 Minutes” on CBS. Having entered Paris with French Gen. Philippe Leclerc’s men in advance of rival correspondents accompanying American troops, Rooney banged out what he witnessed — including gruesome reprisals against German stragglers and French “collabos” — and sent the story off to Stars and Stripes. But the pages disappeared from the French information center to which Rooney entrusted them, and engine trouble befell the American pilot who attempted to deliver them to rear headquarters.

Female correspondents risked losing their press credentials — or being banished from the war zone — if they ventured closer to the fighting than a field hospital. “The public relations boys thought we gals ought to be happy [at the Scribe],” wrote Virginia Irwin of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But I was itching to see what our Joes were doing.” Irwin went AWOL to scratch that itch, shadowing American troops to within mortar range of the front lines. “That’s about a mile closer than any other woman correspondent has been,” Irwin crowed, “or I’ll eat my correspondent’s beret dry without any butter.”

Short of food, cigarettes, coal and public transport, Paris in the post-liberation period lacked “virtually everything needed for everyday life,” Weber writes. “Yet what it singularly had was itself, the magnificent and largely undamaged city that appealed as much as ever to the Western mind and imagination.”

No wonder newshawks hunkered down in their “silver fox holes” at the Scribe. The combat “left Paris behind” by year’s end, Col. Oldfield observed, “but the war correspondents hadn’t the heart to do likewise.”

Allan Fallow, a former resident of France, was a copy editor on the “World War II” series from Time-Life Books.

Dateline — Liberated Paris

By Ronald Weber

Rowman & Littlefield.
240 pp. $27.95

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