Recently I read a book about some extraordinary women of World War II. “Women of Valor” was written by Ellen Hampton, who is a niece of Columbian Dr. Robert “Bob” Gilbert. Actually, the book is dedicated to Bob, along with another uncle, John Meyer, both veterans of that war. Ellen, her husband, and children now live in Paris, France, where she is resident director for the City University of New York”s Paris exchange program.
It would seem to be a given that she has developed a strong affection for France and a sympathy for its people during that difficult period of German occupation, when France itself was split between the official Vichy government of Nazi collaborators and the French Resistance. Into the battles to reclaim France came an intrepid group of female ambulance drivers, mostly expatriates, who distinguished themselves dramatically. It happened like this:
Florence Conrad was a twice-widowed, wealthy American woman living in Paris before WWII. When war became imminent, she rushed into service in several ways — establishing canteens near the Maginot line, procuring blankets for the freezing soldiers, getting messages from soldiers captured by the Germans, and other projects. She had been a nurse during World War I, and she brought all her energy and expertise to the effort.
In 1941 a friend, who was a French general, asked Conrad to go to the States and inform people about the situation in France. Back in the U.S., she used her own resources and spearheaded a drive among her affluent friends to raise money to buy 19 ambulances. She wanted women to drive them in order to free men for fighting.
She recruited ambulance drivers from among French expatriates, many stranded in the U.S. by the outbreak of war. The first 15 of her recruits left in early September 1943, with 6,000 American soldiers and 15 members of the Women”s Army Corps. They landed in Casablanca. Twenty-two joined the group in Morocco, more later in England and France.
They called themselves the Rochambeau Group in honor of the Comte de Rochambeau, Jean Baptiste de Vimeur, who led French infantry troops at Yorktown, helping win the American Revolution. The name later evolved into the Rochambelles, because they were women.
They were almost turned away because they were women, as well. Conrad wanted her Rochambelles to join the Second Armored Division of French General Leclerc (nom de guerre of Philippe de Hautecloque, taken to protect his family who had had to remain behind.) Leclerc refused at first, saying that he could not accept women, but would be happy to have the ambulances.
No deal. Conrad was adamant. The ambulances belonged to the Rochambeau Group. No women, no ambulances. Leclerc relented. He said they could join if they could pass the rigorous training in Morocco.
They not only passed, but distinguished themselves many times during the war, many earning medals like the Croix de Guerre, the Military Medal, and membership in the Legion of Honor. This was at a time when women, especially French women, did not have the freedom they do today. They could not even vote.
I was recently talking to journalist Margaret Henry of Columbus, who read the book before I did. Both of us agreed we would like to see the story become a movie. There are ample personal tales that could be elaborated on for dramatic effect. The impasse over accepting women in the service would not be the only one.
There is the intense danger of war, the hardship and horror stories. One of the women had more than her share of close calls. Once, her ambulance was destroyed by mortar fire while she sat in it. Once, she was leaning over to light her cigarette from a comrade”s. At that very moment, enemy fire blew him to smithereens. Tales of heroism and courage abound.
There are also love stories. There are some marriages. There is one incident when a badly wounded soldier asked his driver to hold his hand, because, he said, “Both of us know I”ll never hold a woman”s hand again.” At the field hospital, a doctor reprimanded the driver for bringing him in, since it was obvious he had lost too much blood to live. She retorted that is wasn”t her job to decide; she was just to bring in the wounded.
After the fighting was over, the soldier and driver met again at an Army canteen, where he was constantly searching for the Rochambelle who had saved his life. And, yes, a romance flourished, and they were married.
“Women of Valor” is a scholarly book, but the touching stories keep surfacing. I know only one screenwriter, but I intend to send her a copy of the book. It is a long shot, but who knows? Maybe someday, someone will adapt it for the big screen. It really needs to be there.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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