An American Motorcyclist Relates his Escape from Paris

From the April 1941 Issue of Motorcyclist magazine

I had been driving an ambulance in Finland from January until the war ended in March. After spending two weeks evacuating refugees from the area ceded to Russia, I returned to Paris early in April. I intended to join another ambulance corps, but after the Finnish experience I had no desire to sit behind the Maginot Line, as my friends had been doing, carrying dental cases during the “phoney” war. So I waited around a few weeks for things to break.

One afternoon I was sitting in a café when a Frenchman, who was a casual acquaintance, asked me if I would like to buy a motorcycle. As it happened, I had fifty dollars smouldering in my pocket, so I told him that I would like to see it, proving the fact that in Paris if you want to sell something, consult your nearest American.

The motorcycle was in a nearby garage and turned out to be a little single-cylinder of 250 cc. with a replica of an Indian’s head over the front fender and the name Dollar. These seemed like good omens, and after a cursory examination which did not bring to light any discouraging details I parted with my money and putted off.

The Dollar had an English motor and a French frame which was very sturdy for its size. Americans are apt to have a rather derogatory opinion of such small foreign jobs like this, but one must remember that they are engineered and designed primarily for fuel economy and efficiency, secondly, for sturdiness and lastly for speed and superfluous comfort. The saddle, for instance, would be an eyesore on an American bicycle and the top speed of 45 or 50 m.p.h. would offer considerable sales resistance, but, on the other hand, this Dollar usually averaged with a load consisting of myself, a passenger, a puppy, seven extra gallons of gas and oil plus a thirty-pound knapsack sixty-five miles on a gallon and when tuned up and on good roads did about eighty miles. When gas costs $1.25 a gallon and is only obtainable in small amounts, such mileage is of considerable importance.

To get back to Paris, I had a motorcycle and no ambulance job when the war broke out. I tried to join the French Red Cross as a liaison motorcyclist for an ambulance section but they could not see the point until they had ambulances spread out all over northern France and no communications. As I speak Norwegian and French, I tried to get to Norway but could not get a berth , and when the Germans really started for Paris two units wanted a driver, but in the confusion they did not know where their trucks were. So I putted around Paris, inspected the bomb damage after the bombing of June 3rd and waited.

Since the middle of May, Paris had been a relay station for the Lowland refugees. They had poured in and had been shunted on their way by bus and train. But about June 4th the scene changed perceptibly. Now French peasants from the north were creaking and winding through the city in their huge four-team wagons. Children, old people and squawking fowl were piled on top of the hay and underneath were footsore and dejected hounds leashed to the axle, following the uneven course of the great wagon over the cobblestones. After a day or two watching the peasants (always respected for their cautious sagacity in such matters), the Parisians started to panic.

From the 5th of June, first quietly, then more precipitously, and finally desperately, the French took leave of their city. This flame was fanned by the lack of information. The allied military communiqués were so ambiguous that one could not tell if the French army was making a strategic retreat in order to deal a death blow or were marching southward for their health.

Meanwhile, I had met an American girl named Barbara Blackburn, who had also been looking for a war-job without success. Towards the 11th we decided that things were getting hot and planned to leave the next morning on the motorcycle. That evening we heard from a friend that the American Hospital had made a call for American nurses, so we motored out to Neuilly, a suburb, to volunteer. On the way, my clutch cable broke. I got it off and was wondering if I could find any motorcycle shops which had not been deserted or use a makeshift, when a French mechanic came up to us.

Pretending to be a plainclothesman, he asked to see our papers because he suspected that we were fifth-columnists. We played up to him and after he was satisfied with our identity, he asked what the trouble was. I explained, and he very laconically told me to follow him. A few blocks away we entered a large garage filled with a fleet of large, brand new, military Terrot motorcycles, which had not been handed over to the army. From a storeroom he got a couple of cables, gave them to me and glumly wished me luck.

After I installed the cable, we went on to the hospital and Barbara learned from the harrassed director that the nursing job was just another rumor. We returned to Montparnasse, the section of Paris where we lived, and made plans for leaving the next morning. It was five o’clock A.M. on the 12th of June when I started loading the motorcycle. Across the handlebars I fastened the broad bottom of a Norwegian type knapsack and brought the small top-end back over the gas tank. Two 2 ½ gallon reserve tins of gas I tied on each side of the front wheel and a gallon of oil on one side of the back fender. About six o’clock we were ready and Barbara climbed on the back saddle and held an eight-week-old Cocker puppy on her lap. When we drove off, I was perched in the middle of this top-heavy carry-all peering over the knapsack and expecting the poor cycle’s back to sag.

We chugged about ten blocks and arrived in front of a cafe where we usually met our friends and with a wheezing and discouraged sight the back tire gave up the ghost. It was an unexpected blow and to cheer ourselves we went in and had a beer.

I unloaded the baggage and prepared to fix the tire. This minor operation required some two and a half hours as I did not have a kit. I was forced to trek from one garage to another to obtain what I needed from the tormented owners who automatically answered “no” thinking that I was trying to cage some gas.

By the time I had finished, a friend had informed Barbara that the American Hospital now needed a driver. So again we crossed the deserted city which looked as if rigor mortis were setting in. Again we found that we had been victims of a rumor and returned to our cafe and as it was so late we put off our departure until the following day.

The roads going south were, of course, jammed, so I decided to head almost due west toward a little resort town called Perros-Guirec on the tip of the Bretagne coast nearest England. I had been there some years before and figured that, without the burden of refugees that the southern provinces had, it would be a good place to stay until the lines were drawn up.

At five A.M. on the 13th we again started with a certain amount of trepidation. If the crazy-quilt condition of my tire tube and the incident of the clutch did not discourage us, the fact that my shrewd little Dollar refused to carry us all up the first hill we came to did. Carrying us, the extra gas and oil and the knapsack was too much for its stout little heart, so Barbara had the prospect of walking up all the hills in France. Later, however, when the traffic thinned out and I could get an unimpeded start, we made out all right, although the motorcycle was apt to run a high temperature.

The traffic leaving Paris was a Sunday driver’s nightmare and looked like an indiscriminate crossing of football traffic, a mobile country fair and an animated jalopy garden, to say nothing of the exhausted and anxious pedestrians who moved on like an endless stream of gold-rushers crossing Death Valley. The heat was stifling and more noxious because of the motor fumes. Every twenty or so kilometers we would come to a barricade thrown across the road which permitted only one way and single lane traffic. Here the tremendous farm wagons, which slowly angled through, held up the traffic for miles. Riding in the ditch or between the traffic lanes we could pass on without losing any time, but the military and civilian trucks, busses, wagons and jalopies lost hours. We made about forty-two miles the first day, which was surprisingly good. At nightfall, we stopped at a farm house and asked if we could sleep in the barn. The old peasant owner shrugged his shoulders and wearily said, “Why not?” We climbed into the loft and found about twenty people already there, two of whom were wounded soldiers who had gotten lost in the shuffle. We did not talk much, but like the others ate silently and went to sleep.

Early the next morning we got started. In the rolling hills, the thick traffic was a grueling strain on the motorcycle and we would have to stop often and let it cool off. At noon it started to rain as we entered a town, so we sought shelter under the trees in the churchyard. A soldier, tired and disheveled, came up and picked a rose growing on the fence. Sticking it in the muzzle of his rifle, he explained that every time he stopped in a town he entered the local church to thank God. Intimating that it would be a good idea for us too, he disappeared through the dark, Gothic arch.

Night fell the second day and we had done a little more, but only fifty or sixty miles. Once during the afternoon two very red-faced and hot-collared men shouted at us and from their gesticulations we realized that German bombers were aloft. The hum and drone of their motors had been drowned out by the cloud of noise we traveled in. They flew across the road about six hundred yards further on and dropped bombs, one of which damaged a car and put a hole in the road.

As it was growing dark we looked around for a barn. We finally found one, but the peasant who owned it leered suspiciously at us and after asking us five different ways who we were, what we were doing in France and inspecting our papers, which he could not read, said no. Obviously, he also suspected us of being Fifth Columnists and he was danged if any such enemies were going to spend the night in his barn. We went on and soon found a cowshed. There we had a supper of bread, cheese and canned beans washed down with a bottle of red wine which I had snaffled in a booming cafe at a special refugee price.

The following day, traffic had thinned out considerably. It was a lovely countryside and beautiful summer weather. Once we stopped on the crest of a long hill overlooking a valley of orchards. While we were waiting for the motorcycle to cool off we both fell asleep in the grass by the side of the road. I was awakened by the terrific explosion of a bomb which exploded about two hundred and fifty yards away. (Every time I tell this story however, the bomb drops fifty yards closer.)

Expecting more I spread myself over Barbara and waited but the rest fell much further away. This display of heroics was lost on her as she had been sleeping so soundly from exhaustion that the explosion hadn’t even awakened her.

That same day we were again giving the motorcycle a breather and were resting in the shade of a hedge. Three trucks full of soldiers were passing when a harsh cry from an observer stopped them. Out tumbled a miscellaneous collection of soldiers of the French army. There were black Senegalese, dark Algerians and Arabs, French poilus and all of them were terrified. I have never seen such panicked troops. They dropped into the ditches and when the danger turned out to be a single English observer they scrambled back into the trucks, but not with the song on their lips which one usually identifies with troop movements.

On the fourth day our confidence in the overburdened motorcycle amounted almost to affection. We had done the first hundred and fifty miles through discouraging traffic and all along the road were the cadavers of cars and wagons which had failed. After the traffic had thinned out it had putted along cheerfully the next hundred and twenty miles and sweated up the hills without a murmur. Just when we were beginning to worry about gas with which to finish the trip we stopped in a little country restaurant and met two English soldier transport drivers who were glad to meet someone they could talk to. One was a Cockney as voluble and high spirited as the other, a Scotchman, was dour and non-commital. The Cockney asked us if we would like a Scotch. We promptly accepted and each of us had a drink. It turned out to be a bottle of Armangac (a French hard-cider) which disillusioned me about Englishmen being Scotch drinkers. We yarned a bit over a good lunch and they said that they had gotten lost and had received orders to make for Brest, an embarcation port for England, after dumping their load of gasoline, some two hundred tons. We looked a bit depressed, and said that we were out of gas and could use some. “You do!” yelps the Cockney, “we’ve got plenty of the bleeding’ stuff,” and gave us all we could carry.

Later on that afternoon we were again resting in a ditch waiting for the motorcycle’s temperature to subside. Nobody was on the road until a lone cyclist leisurely rolled into view. He stopped and asked, “You know that the war is over?” and he went on and explained that the Armistice had been declared.

Without definite news as to the actual state of defenses of France, although we were not surprised, the news was a shock. After he had pedalled on, we felt quite gloomy and discussed the abrupt termination of the war on the continent.

We continued on our way and after going about ten miles we came to the inevitable barricade. A soldier stopped us and asked to see our papers. He was a round-faced man but not plump and very quietly serious. As he motioned us on, he looked up and with tears in his eyes he said simply, “Pauvre France.”

It was really heartbreaking. We drove on the next day through silent towns in mourning. People who had been victimized by their own half-conscious optimism were stunned and apprehensive of the fruits of this defeat at the hands of the “dirty Boche.” We arrived at our destination and a friendly woman put us up in her overcrowded hotel. Two days later German officers in a staff car and led by a motorcycle escort drove around the town and surveyed their new domain while the French resigned themselves to the past and to the future.