Historians Investigating U.S. GI Actions Post D-Day
PARIS – President Bush and other leaders gathering on the beaches of Normandy (search) this weekend will celebrate the heroism and ingenuity of June 6, 1944. But some scholars are paying closer attention to what followed as the victors settled in — black market trade, armed robbery, looting and rape.
Only a small minority of GIs were involved, but the subject needs more study, said Robert Lilly, criminology professor at Northern Kentucky University, author of "The GIs' Hidden Face," not yet published in the United States.
"There is a great, ugly underbelly that has not been really explored," he said by telephone.
Even before D-Day, friction between French Gen. Charles de Gaulle (search) and his American allies was already foreshadowing future diplomatic strains, but the French public largely embraced the American troops who had led the defeat of Hitler's armies.
"There remains a huge recognition toward the liberators; they are still heroes," said Elizabeth Coquart, journalist and author of "La France des GIs" ("France of the GIs"). "But that doesn't mean we can't judge and say, 'yes, some GIs behaved badly.'"
"It's the same as in Iraq," she said. "Any military occupation — whatever it may be — grows intolerable over time."
There are limits to the parallels with Iraq. France was a country already battered by four years of foreign domination, but it quickly had a provisional government in place. The Americans faced nothing resembling the Iraqi insurgency, and they left it to the French to deal with its Nazi collaborators.
And the occupation, though big, was short, compared with that of postwar Germany. According to the U.S. Army Center for Military History (search) in Washington, 750,000 American soldiers remained in France in October 1945 — five months after the war's end. By June '46, the last 24,000 were on their way out. Britain also had troops in France, but far fewer.
While there were rapes by GIs in France, Lilly said the number of cases "skyrocketed" when U.S. soldiers rolled into Germany on their way to victory in the Europe theater on May 8, 1945.
Lilly said he was inspired to examine rape by GIs from stories by his father and uncle, both World War II veterans. In his book, he estimates 3,620 rapes by U.S. soldiers in France from June 1944 to June 1945, based on military records he analyzed.
While U.S. soldiers were exempt from prosecution in French courts, those who were court-martialed often received severe punishment.
Of 139 soldiers suspected of rape in the specific cases Lilly turned up, 116 were convicted, his book says. He found that 70 soldiers were executed for crimes in the entire European theater during the war.
Coquart said only a "handful" of GIs, about 1 percent of those stationed here until France set up its own government in 1946, were involved in misbehavior and crime.
Peter Caddick Adams, a military historian at Britain's Royal Military College of Science (search), said boredom was a factor.
"When you get a lot of bored rear-echelon troops with a lot of time on their hands, you get excesses of behavior," he said by phone from Britain.
Still, it was enough to feed the ill-feeling among the French. Posters in police stations across France reminded officers not to prosecute GIs suspected of wrongdoing but to hand them over to U.S. authorities, Coquart said.
Also, the Cold War was dawning, and the powerful French Communist Party was eager to capitalize on crimes by GIs to undermine the legitimacy of the occupation.
While some French today recall the rapes, the most enduring memories have been of the euphoria of liberation — of GIs showering the French with chocolates, clothes and food.
But eventually, the extended presence gave way to excesses.
"It was just the behavior of an army that, like any victorious army, feels authorized to do anything it wants: taking women, taking the spoils," Coquart said. "It's the prize of many armies."