There are stories from my family’s history that I have been thinking a good deal about in the run-up and during these first days of our war with Iraq. In cold darkness on the outskirts of occupied Paris, a lone parachutist quietly landed in a marshy field. Quickly, he stashed his gear and consulted the compass: He had less than four hours to meet his contact at the rendezvous point, and who knew what Nazi presence he would encounter.
His years of training as an American OSS agent had served him well, even though he’d been only 19 years old when he was recruited. He could blend into almost any situation, could take command without fear, and had an uncanny memory for details. And, yes, he could be ruthless. Even “Wild Bill” Donovan had said that he had “ice water for blood.”
But here, behind enemy lines in occupied France, Walter Ryon — my father — would face a bit more than he’d expected. After waiting at the rendezvous location longer than would have been deemed wise, he realized that his contact had most likely been permanently detained. It was later learned that his contact had indeed been killed by the SS. And so, though the specific rendezvous point had not been disclosed during questioning, Nazi forces were combing Paris for my father.
For 67 days, my father lived — literally — in the sewers of Paris. For those who haven’t seen the Paris sewers, they are remarkably large underground structures, not the cramped chamber of horrors one would normally imagine. Nonetheless, it was an experience that changed my father forever. He would never again eat in restaurants that most people would consider passable. Or stay in just any hotel. And, for the remainder of his life, he was fastidiously neat — to the point that many of us in the family truly had to wonder what his housekeeper had to tackle each week.
At some point Dad “acquired” a Nazi uniform and began spending most of his time at Nazi headquarters in Paris. Only problem was, he knew only a smattering of German. So he got himself a bottle of French wine and would stumble into the lobby of HQ and pretend to be drunk. He’d mumble a few slurred words in German and pass out on a bench in the lobby until some Nazi officer threw him out.
But in that little time in the headquarters, Dad would collect information — lots of information — including how the search was going for him.
Dad never told me how, but at some point, he met up with a woman from the French Resistance. Her name is buried in the pages and pages of notes I’ve taken over the years of Dad’s OSS exploits. It was this Frenchwoman who got the fake paperwork and identification necessary and plotted the course of his escape from behind enemy lines.
My father said little about this woman except to tell us how much she’d risked to get him out. In fact, he never had much good to say about the French in any of our conversations — except for those, like this woman, who were in the Resistance.
The French Resistance spent most of World War II assisting downed Allied pilots, medically and otherwise. They cooperated with intelligence services from across the globe, usually at great personal risk. They were not always successful, but they were determined, and without them, many Allied personnel — like my father — might not have survived their ordeal. Thanks to the bravery and determination of a young Frenchwoman, my father passed away peacefully in his sleep at the ripe age of 81 last October, rather than at the hands of the Nazis in World War II.
One wonders what happened to those brave folks of the French Resistance, and to their descendants, particularly in light of France’s cowardly and nonsensical behavior in facing down another ruthless dictator. It’s almost as if the De Gaulle strain of the French gene pool had taken over the entire nation, as a state of almost hysterical appeasement has gripped France’s government and citizenry alike.
In was De Gaulle, actually, who — quite late in the war — demanded that our president recognize all that the French Resistance had done during World War II. He dragged their feet getting in and then wanted all the credit when the shooting stopped. I expect we will see that dynamic at work again in the near future.
— Kay Daly, public-relations executive with the Signature Agency, just received the “Ronald Reagan Award” at the American Conservative Union’s 30th Annual CPAC.