Sixty-nine years ago today a letter was on its way from Europe to New Orleans.
Five days earlier, on July 4, 1944, a soldier in the American Army, camped out somewhere in France, had written to his sister:
“I’m sure you’ve heard and seen much about the invasion since D-day,” the soldier, my father, Ellis Laborde, wrote to his sister, Lena. “I did not arrive in France on D-day but I came in shortly afterward, and there was still much to be seen, and plenty hard fighting to do,” he continued. “I was in action several times since. Thank God thus far I didn’t even get a scratch.”
War time mail was heavily censored for fear that if somehow seized by the enemy the letters could give valuable information. Soldiers were not allowed to be specific about their locations or casualties they witnessed. Though they must have been bursting with feelings about the hell they had lived through and the triumph they had experienced, the letters were forced to be subdued, more about the setting than the fighting: “At first the Frenchmen were rather cold towards us,” he wrote. “The welcome we received here was nothing like it had been in Sicily.”
For the rest of his life, Sicily would be what all else was measured against. He was a medic, and while under fire during the Invasion of Sicily my dad rushed to save a wounded soldier. A passing general saw the action, thought it heroic, and later issued him a certificate of commendation. Years later he would learn that he had also been awarded a Bronze Star medal. Sicily was also the site of one of the war’s lighter moments. One day after the fighting was over a wealthy local man drove into the camp and asked to see the commanding officer. The man had connections in Louisiana and wanted to entertain any soldiers from there. That evening the Louisianians in the bunch were served a full pasta dinner at the man’s villa.
(As warm-hearted as I always thought that story was I have since gained some perspective with information that the Sicilian Mafia, which had been suppressed by Mussolini’s fascist government, was very helpful to the American invaders. Though we will never know who the man with the villa was, it is possible, perhaps likely given his wealth, that he would have had Mafia connections. His reasons for entertaining that night were probably altruistic though. New Orleans housed the largest Sicilian immigration in the country so he would have very easily had relatives, or connections, in Louisiana.)
France was less hospitable at first: “Their attitude is gradually changing,” my father wrote of the locals, “now that they are finding out what the Germans said about us was just plain ole German propaganda.”
Optimism was high in the summer of ’44. With the allies having broken through, the war in Europe seemed nearly over, maybe within a month or so. Earlier in his letter the soldier has speculated about what he might do after the war, perhaps landing a job with “Public Service,” New Orleans' utility company at the time, or going back to his previous job at a hotel, or maybe, he joked, just retiring.
As happy as that July 4th seemed to be, his favorite holiday, Christmas, would be miserable that year. Rather than surrender what was by then a hopeless cause, the Nazis made a determined last stand in Belgium near the German border. This final great confrontation of the European war, to be known as The Battle of the Bulge, was fought during one of Europe’s coldest winters ever. Soldiers, topped by layers of snow, froze in foxholes. The “scratch” that he had thus far avoided at the time of his Fourth of July letter came in a painful way – a leg so frost bitten that it almost had to be amputated. The leg was saved but for the rest of his life he suffered with it.
In the summer of ‘44, though, his most serious malady had been sheer loneliness: “Please pass this short letter around so the rest of the family can read it as well,” he concluded. “A letter a week from you would be highly appreciated, Certainly you will not let me down, will you.”
He was in a hospital in Belgium when the war ended. The news was echoed by a distant bugler playing "The Star-Spangled Banner". That would be the sweetest message delivered on either side of the Atlantic.
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BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s new book, Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013), is due to be released Oct. 31. It is now available for pre-order at Amazon.com.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. WYES-TV, CH. 12.