Excerpt from "Winter Journey through the Ninth"
by Harry A. Franck
Beyond Soissons mile after mile of American small ammunition in long boxes, piled in lots of a hundred boxes or more each, closely flanked the roads. The towns, rundown, dreary, unrepaired, unpainted, now and then half of them masses of rubble, contained plenty of husky, youngish men, doing little except walking with their girls--sturdy, red-cheeked, girls, with no need for cosmetics. Bicycling and such exertions as wood-gathering, and limited food, had obviously improved the young women of France physically.
At "Bombay" the Bristol Hotel (is there a European city without one?) still had one or two unoccupied officers billets, in other words aging ordinary French hotel rooms, bidets and all. There was a hint of heat, actual hot water now and then, sometimes even toilet paper--though no towels and, of course, being French, no soap. An MP armed to the teeth manned the reception desk, with orders not to admit women unemployed there. The electric lights were of course painfully weak but the windows were covered with those great, ample, thick-velvet draw-curtains common in Europe and the Luftwaffe's persistent interest in one of our ammunition dumps, a block beyond the Bristol, made it wise to enforce the blackout.
Strictly speaking "Bombay" was only the headquarters of the Ninth Bombardment Division, Ninth Air Force, in--now that it can be told--the ancient city of Reims (which of course, our American army called "reams" and thought you were showing off if you pronounced it correctly). It was a twenty-minute walk from the Bristol, past the front of the famous cathedral and the rump-like rear of the Carnegie Library--flashlight walk, that is, for in December Army office hours began before daybreak and ended after dark, seven usually icy days a week.
There were half a dozen stone-and-stucco buildings inside the high stone walled and iron-picket-enclosed Lycée de Reims, founded in 1802, destroyed between 1914 and 1918; reconstructed 1922-6. Madame la Veuve-Pommery lived just across the street from the front gateway. German headquarters signs were still painted on most of the doors. Male French civilian employees were said to have asked, with lascivious smirks, when WACs were first assigned there, whether they would sunbathe in the courtyards, as the German girls who once worked there did. There was a French waitress-attended field officers' mess and a company officers' serve-yourself mess on the ground floor of a corner building, a bar, densely crowded after office hours, on the second floor, a hard-benched movie on the third floor. It was within this establishment that General Eisenhower was to accept the surrender of the German forces the following May.
The Petit Lycée, once occupied by the smaller children, now contained the office of Major General Samuel E. Anderson, commanding general of the IXth "Bomb Div," and much of his staff, in what had obviously once been the principal's big office. Perhaps it is symbolic that the Public Relations Office occupied what had been the kindergarten, its lockers still adorned with paintings of interest to small children. Here, where we were to impose upon genial Major Ken LeMaster and smiling Lieutenant Jack Ballatine, IXth Bomb Div PRO officers, during our first fortnight of writing, there was for some reason adequate warmth, so rare in Army offices and billets in Europe, and on those rare days free from the almost perpetually soupy weather of a French December, ample daylight. But the French never have learned that even good electric lights high up under the ceiling are not conducive to reading or, for that matter, to writing.
But this was only a preview; we would be back again for a longer stay.