Margaret and Dick   


August 2014: An American hero

On August 17, 1944, young American Lieutenant Paul Swank gave his life to help block a German army unit and to permit his colleagues in the French resistance to escape death and fight another day.  

It’s a short, sad story of great bravery, like so many others of WW-2.  And yet, seventy years later, hundreds of local people, dignitaries, clergy, and veterans assemble at a small tomb at the side of the busy Aude river highway to honor the bravery of Paul Swank.  The people of Alet-les-Bains, the tiny village near his place of death, are the guardians of his memory.   But many American soldiers gave their lives for the cause.  What was special about Paul Swank?

Two months after D-Day, the allies landed on the Mediterranean coast and rapidly swept north, chasing out the German occupiers.  In August, every village in the south of France commemorates the exact day of their liberation.  

The Germans were anxious to leave before they had to battle their way out, but they had also been urgently recalled north by their leaders to fight the allied advance in Normandy.  The job of the local French resistance fighters (called the Maquis after the dry brush of the local hillsides that provided their cover) was to impede the Germans’ progress until allied forces arrived.  The Maquis were scattered independent groups with divergent politics, from communist to right-wing.  American soldiers parachuted in to join them and train the maquisards to work together and fight more effectively.  These Americans were a select group of army engineers, skilled in blowing up bridges and roads to impede the German retreat.  They were in the elite OSS, Office of Special Services (predecessor of the CIA).  Unlike most OSS, whose job was gathering information, Paul Swank and his colleagues were sent to fight behind enemy lines (predecessors of the US Special Forces). 

Swank’s group of fifteen American OSS parachuted into the mountains a few miles from Alet with guns and ammunition.  They had two weeks to train and arm the Maquis.

A large German detachment was sent upriver from the regional headquarters in Carcassonne to Couiza to empty a food-storage warehouse and transport the supplies north to German troops near Normandy.  As they passed through Alet, a group of maquisards harassed them from the hills.  Several days later, that same German contingent, now loaded with food, began its return trip.  Swank led a group of four OSS and eighteen maquisards to blow up the hillside at the narrowest part of the gorge near Alet to block the road, but the Germans arrived sooner than anticipated.  Worse, the Germans had taken a dozen local French leaders hostage and forced them to march in front of or perch on the German trucks.  Swank’s crew, realizing that the hostages would be first to be killed, could not attack, so they decided to retreat back up into the mountains.  A fierce firefight ensued, and Swank was wounded.  He ordered the American and French fighters to escape up the hill, and he held off the German advance for a few precious minutes until he was killed.  A German officer was quoted telling a local, “We have never seen a man fight as much as this officer while everything was against him.”  Lieutenant Paul Swank was 23 years old.  

This year I attended the ceremony in honor of the 70th anniversary of the liberation.  I asked all those I met at the ceremony why so many local French people remember this young American.  He spent only two weeks here.  I received two answers.

Swank had written a letter before his last battle asking that, if he died in the battle, he be buried here.  A resistance fighter brought his body into Alet, where he received a proper wake in the home of a woman whose son was in a German prison camp.  Her great-granddaughter told me, “It was just as she wished that local folks would honor her son if he was killed.”  Swank and two Maquis colleagues received a funeral in the church and were buried in town, and Swank’s grave was later moved to the memorial tomb in the narrow gorge where it all happened.  Paul Swank’s family started coming to Alet on the second anniversary of his death in 1946 and have come regularly ever since.  Paul Swank is considered an adopted son of Alet.

Swank is also remembered to honor the Maquis.  An old veteran with WW-2 medals said, “He is remembered so that we remember all of the brave Maquis fighters.”  A younger local man echoed that sentiment.  He is too young to have fought in WW-2 and is not even a veteran, but he is active in a local Maquis memorial association.  “We keep the memory of the Maquis alive so that even young people do not forget their sacrifice.”  All echo the thought: never again.

This 70th anniversary was a big one.  Paul’s younger cousin, Barbara Ivy (now in her 80s), her brother Conway, her daughter Caroline, and the son of Paul’s American OSS colleague Grahl Weeks  were all here for the ceremonies.  

Barbara has spent years digging up detailed information for a book on the Swank story.  I promise you that her book will keep you on the edge of your chair -- she's a passionate story-teller.  At the tomb ceremony, Barbara was introduced to former maquisard Jean Sanchez, who had been with Swank’s group in the battle.

“What was your code name, Jean?” she asked.  
“Jonquille,” he replied.  
“Oh, I know all about you, Jonquille,” said Barbara.  And with that, she started telling Jonquille stories from seventy years ago.    

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