On August 17, as it has for the past 75 years, a solemn ceremony unfolds in the region of southern France just south of Carcassonne, marking events that happened in 1944 but have never been forgotten or diminished in the memories of residents and their descendants.
It’s generally warm and sunny for the ceremony in Limoux. A few wispy clouds are in the bright blue sky. Old men, with their families, are coming together as they have every year since the end of the war. Some children are playing chase among the trees in the central square. A podium is set up next to an obelisk on the face of which a metal plaque is attached. It tells of the heroic deeds of local resistance fighters of World War II. A cool breeze mostly fails to flutter the flags as some of the men are struggling to attach flagstaffs to belts around their waists. A photographer, standing under the shade of a Sycamore tree, is checking his camera. A lady, with notepad in hand, is approaching the mayor, who is looking over his notes. Other reporters and photographers from Carcassonne and surrounding villages soon join the growing crowd.
The mayor walks up to the podium. The dozen men with their flags stand at attention in front of and to either side of the podium and the obelisk. Cameras flash. All is quiet. The mayor speaks. Then one of the old men steps up to the podium and says a few words. Cameras flash again as the crowd disperses and people return to their cars.
From Limoux, the convoy of cars drives down D118. The River Aude flows north to Carcassonne from the Pyrénées Mountains.
It is here that the people pay tribute every year to the young American, 24-year-old Paul Swank, who was killed by the Germans in August of 1944. He and his men had spent the previous week delivering arms to two local groups of resistance fighters, known as maquis. They blew up key bridges across the Aude river to prevent German troops from moving north to oppose the Allied troops who had landed on D-Day months before. They had blasted rocks to block highways. On Aug. 17 they were trying to prevent the Germans from emptying a warehouse full of food in Alet Even though the Germans had been using food from the warehouse, there was still enough to feed all of the surrounding small towns, villages, and hamlets in the Aude Department of France and Swank’s men wanted it for the locals. Paul was shot as he tried to stop a German truck, which had French hostages strapped to the roof and sides. Local people recovered his body and eventually laid him to rest in the roadside tomb.
I still have an Army badge given to me by Paul, my cousin, just before he left for Europe in 1944.
The central message of all these ceremonies is: heroism is an enduring, transnational trait that inspires the best of us, no matter where we live.
The big turning points of World War II are well known to history: The Battle of Britain, the D-Day landings, and even the hitherto clandestine efforts of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park.
Less known is the key role played by a few dozen groups of American soldiers operating in full uniform in occupied France, fascist Italy and Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway, Burma, and China, helping local resistance groups blow up bridges and otherwise battle the Axis forces toward the end of the war.
General William J. Donovan, the legendary founder of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, believed that the varied ethnic backgrounds of our country could be used to our full advantage in World War II. He had the idea of deploying as covert operators American soldiers who still had a working knowledge of a second language and, through their parents and or their grandparents, a connection to the Old Country.
These Operational Groups, or OGs as they were known, usually consisted of two officers and thirteen enlisted men – mostly non-commissioned officers. One would normally be a medic and another a radio operator. They all wore the American uniform on their missions and a shoulder patch with the American flag on one side and a letter marked Top Secret on the back, explaining who they were.
The letters for the OGs deployed in France read:
This soldier is a fully accredited representative of the Supreme Allied Command. He has been instructed to join forces whenever possible with resistance groups to wage unending war against the German invader for the liberation of FRANCE.
There’s a French translation, but nothing in German.
All that, however, made no difference to the German Command, who issued orders that they be treated as spies if captured.
The OGs operated independently from the Jedburgh groups, which were joint American, British and French paramilitary teams. Ex-Jedburgh and former CIA Director William Colby said in 1993: “The Operational Groups were not ‘the glamor boys’. Those soldiers were doing the hard work and not getting much publicity.”
Just as the OSS foreshadowed the CIA, the OGs were the real forerunners of our present-day Special Forces.
The exploits in southern France of Paul’s group are remembered even 75 years later on both sides of the Atlantic.
It’s a story of courage, humility, ingenuity, loyalty and quiet determination. It’s the story of a key underpinning of the war effort. And above all it’s the story of an enduring bond between people and countries that can never be broken and must always be remembered.
Barbara Ivy Jogerst is the author of Paul Swank, Enduring Hero, (Significance Press/August 2019). She is the cousin of Lt. Swank, who was killed by Germans on August 17, 1944, while attempting to free hostages on a Germany convoy.
Featured image: Paul Swank and his crew (Photo courtesy of Barbara Ivy Jogerst)