Press

World War II Spies, Interpreters and Heroes

By William J. Thibodeaux

The Daily Advertiser – July 24, 2011

I recently viewed Pat Mire’s film, “Mon Cher Camarade,” which is an excellent documentary. It tells the never before told story of some of the French speaking Acadian or Cajun soldiers’ role during the Second World War. There are comments by several well-known Acadian historians and linguists, and comments by some of the veterans who were there. Thousands of Acadian GIs fought alongside other American servicemen during the war.

For many south Louisiana servicemen, French had been their primary language; a language learned from home at an early age, handed down from previous generations. It was the same language that had been denigrated for decades since the mandatory ruling in 1916 and early 1920s, which banned speaking French on Louisiana school grounds.

It was the same language that was ridiculed by American Army officers at military training centers.For the most part, outsiders considered Cajuns to be nothing more than ignorant peasants surrounded by swamps; thus, causing many of the Cajuns to turn away from their language and culture. They were ashamed of who they were. Some even changed their names or altered the pronunciation in order to be accepted or anglicized. Ironically, it was also the same language that was so vital to the American war effort in France, Belgium, French North Africa and French speaking Indochina during World War II.

Sam Broussard of Breaux Bridge and Lt. Colonial Robert LeBlanc from Abbeville and many others from south Louisiana were OSS (Office of Strategic Services) officers, an intelligence agency and predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They were recruited because of their Cajun French linguistic skills. They were spies, and they operated behind enemy lines.

Sam Broussard sat in on General Eisenhower’s briefing of the invasion plans of Normandy. “A meeting so secret it required entering three doors of top secret people making sure that only top secret officers with special security passes were allowed to enter.” It was the largest amphibious invasion in world history, with over 160,000 troops landing on June 6, 1944, and many of them were Cajuns.

“French speaking Cajuns not only worked with the French resistance,” said Lt. Colonial LeBlanc. “They also provided the U. S. Army’s most effective means of communication with local authorities and the civil population, which in turn provided critical support and intelligence to the American army.” Willie L. Castille Jr. from Arnaudville was a French interpreter in North Africa, while Lee Bernard of Erath, Carroll Mestayer of Loreauville, and Felix Mire of Pointe Noir (Pat’s father) were a few of the hundreds of Acadian French speakers from Louisiana that assisted their field commanders during the war. There are several variations of French, and Acadian French sounded exactly like the working class of France, which was where the Acadians originated from before their arrival in North America. Historian Carl Brasseaux says Cajun translators were as important to the American War effort as the now much acclaimed Native American Code Talkers, yet the Cajun translator’s contributions have been entirely ignored.

In Pat Mire’s film, there is a short film clip from an old 1960s television series named “Combat” staring Vic Morrow as Sergeant Chip Saunders and Pierre Jalbert from Quebec, who played PFC Paul “Caje” LeMay, a Cajun GI from New Orleans. The film clip depicts how Hollywood viewed the Cajun GIs’ contribution during World War II. In one scene, Caje was dressed as a civilian Frenchman riding a bicycle in the countryside when he was stopped at a German check point. Caje, the disguised Cajun GI, was questioned by the German soldiers in French, and Caje was able to answer the questions to their satisfaction. The Germans allowed Caje to continue. I remember viewing that series on television long ago and silently thinking, he isn’t speaking Cajun French. Instead, it was Hollywood’s version of what a “real Cajun” should sound like. Mais, Pense donc, so much for being authentic. In reality, Caje would have been shot because he wasn’t speaking the language of the locals in France. He was speaking Canadian French, which is different than Parisian and Cajun French. And, apparently Hollywood thinks all Cajuns live in New Orleans too.

Dr. Barry Jean Ancelet of ULL summed it up really well when he said, “Isn’t it interesting that a language learned with great difficulty from school is considered a mark of culture, but a language learned naturally and spoken fluently from home is considered a problem?” Ancelet went on to say that when CODOFIL was first created in 1968, its first name was the council for the development of Louisiana French. The name was immediately changed to the council for French in Louisiana.

“There is a big difference,” said Ancelet. “My point about this is, if this is just an effort to generate or regenerate generic French; then what is the point? The point should be to preserve the continuity with our own past. If that is the point, we can’t regenerate generic French; we have to regenerate this one, with its own particularity and with its own specificity,” said Ancelet.

Although there are numerous tables Française or French tables throughout Acadiana who are hopeful, there are some who feel it is inevitable that our Cajun language will slip-slide away much like our Louisiana coastline. “Mon Cher Camarade” has undoubtedly sparked some interest in our language and culture, and hopefully it will encourage its preservation. Pat’s film sets the record straight and acknowledges the unique and important contributions made by the French speaking Cajuns of south Louisiana. And, unlike the other movies, Mire used real Cajuns!