This article detailing a specific time period in the life of Lucy Hanson, a resident of Carlton Senior Living Pleasant Hill was written by fellow resident and Martinez News-Gazette writer, Harriett Burt.
At one point in her life, an Arab fortune teller in French Algeria told teenage Lucienne ‘Lucy’ Hanson, “I see you in uniform. I see water very, very far away….” No matter how skeptical one might be about fortune tellers, this turned out to be a true vision. Lucy wore a U.S. Army uniform from 1945 until 1947 when she crossed the Atlantic as the bride of an American army officer with a baby on the way. Born in Aix-les-Baines, France in 1925, Lucy is now a spirited 94, with many memories to share of an interesting life of which World War II is just one part.
“My only real childhood ended when I was five,” she notes. Her mother’s family owned one of the leading silk companies in France and her father’s family was very musical. Her father, whom she describes as a “wonderful pianist” and her mother who was an excellent businesswoman, separated in 1930. Lucy only saw her father twice in the intervening years until his death at age 50. Her mother contracted encephalitis from which she nearly died but survived spending a year in a nursing home and struggling with the aftereffects periodically for the remainder of her life.
When her mother recovered, she and her daughters moved to Paris where Lucy began dancing classical ballet at the age of eight. Encouraged by a ballerina who was a sister of her uncle, Lucy danced until her teens when she was diagnosed with a heart condition and restricted from strenuous physical activity. The family musical heritage was powerful, however, so Lucy took voice lessons and ended up singing on the radio, at church and occasionally at one of Algier’s finest hotels.
In early 1939, with Europe moving closer to World War II, Lucy and her mother moved to Algiers in Algeria, then a department (state) of France where relatives lived. When France fell in 1940, she was 14 and remembers clearly that while the Germans were in charge, they were fighting in North Africa under General Rommel. They left the governance of Algeria under the token leadership of the collaborationist Vichy government. Meanwhile, Lucy and her mother had no news of Lucy’s sister, Eliane, who had stayed in Paris where she danced professionally as an acrobatic ballerina. The sisters reunited in August, 1945 in Paris when Lucy learned that Eliane had walked south from Paris to the Mediterranean in 1940. After a harrowing journey, she ended up in Cherbourg in Normandy where she became an active member of the Resistance until the Allied invasion was successful.
Lucy was 14 when France fell. Although the Germans controlled Algeria, they were soon involved in General Rommel’s attempt to conquer North Africa. The Vichy French ‘token’ government thus was in charge. “Things were very glum in Algiers,” Lucy recalls. “There were no parties but we did get movies,” including many from Hollywood. The only news broadcasts, however, were controlled by the Germans so accurate information about the war both locally and internationally mainly came to citizens through rumor until the Allies took control of Algeria in November 1942.
Lucy and her mother lived in an apartment on the city’s main street near the Bay of Algiers which had no place to shelter in case of air raids. Lucy’s room overlooked the bay which was filled on the morning of November 8, 1942 with “grey ships of all sizes,” she recalls. “It was unreal. I was hanging on the balcony,” watching as American, British and South African troops marched down the street.
“I saw my first air battle,” she recalls. “Two planes were fighting. One went down. I didn’t know if it was German or British or American. I was sad because they were all young men. That hit me…seeing that plane go down.”
The bombing started that night. Algiers is situated on a hill rising from the Mediterranean. Their apartment was close to the Bay but there was no safe shelter in the building so she and her mother always scurried across the street to another building where they could shelter under the staircase.
“We always knew when it was the Germans bombing because their planes had a certain sound. Germany’s ally, Italy, also bombed,” she notes. “The worst air raid was Italian.” It came not later in the evening as usual but at 6 p.m. as people were coming home from work and sitting down to dinner. The Italians used machine guns rather than bombs. “It was a terrible raid,” she recalls. “Many died.”
But even then, Lucy says, “I had a feeling I wouldn’t get hurt,” and she didn’t although she admits she was saved twice from injury or death by her mother who wouldn’t allow her to go to the movies one evening and said ‘no’ another time when she wanted to spend the night with a friend who lived nearby. Both the theater and the friend’s apartment building were bombed on those occasions. Lucy’s friend received injuries from which she never completely recovered physically or emotionally. Several GI’s who were bunking in the building were killed.
Before the Allies landed, her mother had urged her to go to business school which changed her life unexpectedly. She was 18 when she answered a help wanted ad put out by the Americans. Lucy was sure she had no chance especially when the interviewer closed with, “we’ll let you know.” In France that was code for, “you’re done.” But as someone said at the time, “if you want to see pretty girls in Algeria, they all work for the Americans.” Soon Lucy was translating for the Quartermaster’s staff who were buying food and supplies for the troops. Later she transferred to the G2 (intelligence) department of the Army taking dictation in English and translating it into French when needed.
By June 1944, after D-Day, the Allies were racing across France towards Germany. As the war in Europe neared its conclusion in 1945, Lucy learned that the Army needed 10 bilingual secretaries to go to Paris to help the over-stretched WACs staffing Army Headquarters. She was ready. Once there, she applied to go somewhere she’d never been. Consequently, on May 8, 1945, she was riding towards her new assignment in Rheims when an oncoming limousine caused the driver to yell, “Lucy, there’s Ike!” The commander of the Allied armies was on his way back to Paris from Rheims where he had just accepted Germany’s surrender thus ending World War II in Europe.
Since Rheims was filling up with fighting GIs just leaving Germany after months of battling their way through Belgium, northern France and western Germany, it was according to Lucy, “very rough,” so she applied for a job in the American Zone of West Germany beginning in Wiesbaden and later in Frankfurt. She had lots of friends particularly among the American pilots.
By 1947, she had met and married her first husband and fulfilled the fortune teller’s promise that she would find herself on lots and lots of water traveling from Germany to America and a new life in a new country with new adventures which she enjoys recalling 73 years later.
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Written by Harriett Burt, Resident at Carlton Senior Living Pleasant Hill