‘Taboo’: French women speak out on rapes by US soldiers during WWII

NEW DELHI: Aimee Dupre had always chosen not to speak about the rape of her mother by two American soldiers following the Normandy landings in June 1944.
However, after 80 years since the violent attack, she finally decided to come to voice her experience.
Nearly one million soldiers from the United States, Britain, Canada, and France arrived on the Normandy coast in the weeks following D-Day as part of an operation that marked the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany‘s control over Europe.
Aimee was 19, living in Montours, a village in Brittany, and delighted to see the “liberators’ arrive, as was everybody around her.
However, her happiness disappeared. Two American soldiers, commonly known as GIs, came to the family’s farm on the night of August 10.
“They were drunk and they wanted a woman,” Aimee, now 99, told AFP, producing a letter that her mother, also called Aimee, wrote “so nothing is forgotten’.
Aimee Helaudais Honore described the events of that night in her tidy handwriting. The soldiers fired their guns towards her husband, creating holes in his cap, and menacingly approached her daughter Aimee.
To protect her daughter, she agreed to leave the house with the GIs, she wrote. “They took me to a field and took turns raping me, four times each.”
Aimee’s voice broke as she read from the letter. “Oh mother, how you suffered, and me too, I think about this every day,” she said.
“My mother sacrificed herself to protect me,” she said. “While they raped her in the night, we waited, not knowing whether she would come back alive or whether they would shoot her dead.”
The events of that night were not isolated. In October 1944, after the battle for Normandy was won, US military authorities put 152 soldiers on trial for raping French women.
In truth, hundreds or even thousands of rapes between 1944 and the departure of the GIs in 1946 went unreported, said American historian Mary Louise Roberts, one of only a handful to research what she called “a taboo’ of World War II.
“Many women decided to remain silent,” she said. “There was the shame, as often with rape.”
She mentioned that the significant difference in their experience compared to the widespread joy over the American victory made it particularly challenging to voice their thoughts.
“Easy to get’
Roberts also blames the army leadership who, she said, promised soldiers a country with women that were “easy to get’ to add to their motivation to fight.
The US Army newspaper Stars and Stripes contained many pictures that depicted French women kissing victorious Americans.
“Here’s What We’re Fighting For,” read a headline on September 9, 1944, alongside a picture of cheering French women and the caption: “The French are nuts about the Yanks.”
The incentive of sex “was to motivate American soldiers’, Roberts said.
“Sex, and I mean prostitution and rape, was a way for Americans to show domination over France, dominating French men, as they had been unable to protect their country and their women from the Germans,” she added.
In Plabennec, near Brest on the westernmost tip of Britanny, Jeanne Pengam, nee Tournellec, remembers “as if it was yesterday’ how her sister Catherine was raped and their father murdered by a GI.
“The black American wanted to rape my older sister. My father stood in his way and he shot him dead. The guy managed to break down the door and enter the house,” 89-year-old Jeanne told AFP.
At the age of nine, she ran to a nearby United States garrison to inform them.
“I told them he was German, but I was wrong. When they examined the bullets the next day, they immediately understood that he was American,” she said.
Her sister Catherine kept the terrible secret “that poisoned her whole life’ until shortly before her death, said one of her daughters, Jeannine Plassard.
“Lying on her hospital bed she told me, “I was raped during the war, during the Liberation,”” Plassard told AFP.
Asked whether she ever told anybody, her mother replied: “Tell anybody? It was the Liberation, everybody was happy, I was not going to talk about something like this, that would have been cruel,” she said.
French writer Louis Guilloux worked as a translator for US troops after the landings, an experience he described in his 1976 novel “OK Joe!”, including the trials of GIs for rape in military courts.
“Those sentenced to death were almost all black,” said Philippe Baron, who made a documentary about the book.
“Shameful secret’
Those found guilty, including the rapists of Aimee Helaudais Honore and Catherine Tournellec, were hanged publicly in French villages.
“Behind the taboo surrounding rapes by the liberators, there was the shameful secret of a segregationist American army,” said Baron.
“Once a black soldier was brought to trial, he had practically no chance of acquittal,” he said.
This, said Roberts, allowed the military hierarchy to protect the reputation of white Americans by “scapegoating many African-American soldiers’.
She said that out of the 29 soldiers who were sentenced to death for rape in 1944 and 1945, 25 of them were black GIs.
Racial stereotypes about sexuality made it easier to accuse black people of rape. On the other hand, white soldiers were frequently part of mobile units, which made them more difficult to locate compared to their black counterparts who were mostly in one place.
“If a French woman accused a white American soldier of rape, he could easily get away with it because he never stayed near the rape scene. The following morning, he had disappeared.
After her book “What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France’ appeared in 2013, Roberts said the reaction in the US was so hostile that the police would have to regularly check on her.
“People were angry at my book because they didn’t want to lose this ideal of the good war, of the good GI,” she said. “Even if it means we have to keep on lying.”
(With inputs from agencies)


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