I first met Bob Rieders in Valognes, Normandy where we both joined the cadre (a new unit which is just being organized) of the European Theater Headquarters.
After waiting a few weeks until Paris was liberated, we proceeded to that great city where, after the first couple of weeks, we began to live a remarkably normal life – for soldiers, that is.
We awoke around 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, had no reveille or formation of any kind, got dressed and went off, not to a mess hall, as such, but to a choice of restaurants on the Champs-Elysées such as you have probably seen in travelogs. We had passes for one or two of these uniquely French cafes where we sat at outside tables when the weather was mild and inside when it was not.
All my visitors, such as my cousin Irv and Uncle Al, who would occasionally accompany me for a meal at one of these cafes, would always want to pay part or all of the check each time. When I told them it was GI and on “Uncle Sam”, they had never heard of such a thing and thought I was just trying to be a good host.
The first few weeks we sought and found places to get our laundry done, our hair cut, film developed, along with other services necessary for a comfortable urban life. Walking and the Metro were our main means of transportation, although Bob and I were occasionally able to use the officers’ taxis service. This was the same one that the German officers had used, which had employed the same Citroen and Renault cabs and buses, along with the same French chauffeurs. Most of the vehicles had a charcoal-burning apparatus hanging along the side, on the rear, or on the roof, which created the energy they ran on.
Due to severe shortages of gasoline, many civilian vehicles in Europe and Japan were converted to operate on gasses generated from coal or wood. The gasses would be condensed to liquid form and fed to the carburetor. The condensed liquid hydrocarbons would form a fuel of relatively high volatility that would be sufficient to operate the gasoline engine.
Some seventy years later I visited Bob at his home in St. Louis and while recounting our time together in Paris, we brought up this taxi ride and although we both remembered it vividly, we each had slightly different takes.
Bob’s was: “We were returning to our billet in a taxicab when I saw some tracers from small-arms fire coming from the rooftops. The Free French Forces of the Interior and the Free French Army were still fighting for control of the city, helping to keep order, and punishing collaborators. They stopped us at a roadblock because they suspected us of being Germans in GI uniforms which is why they were shooting at us. I was on the street side behind the driver and when I saw streaks of light whistle by it dawned on me that they were tracers. The driver stopped and was gone, so I said, ’Mel, let’s get the hell out of here! If one of those tracers hits the gas tank… POW!’ We got out of the car, and I remember crawling along the curb until we reached a house where we got up and made a mad dash for the door. The occupants opened up for us, all the while giving us cheers and applause for our derring-do. After that we were off again with the same taxi driver.”
My contribution was: After leaving the folks who had greeted us so cheerfully, we were stopped again and this time taken to a Gendarme precinct station because our taxi driver (the same one as before) had not re-registered with the authorities and still had his old Nazi driver’s license. They took us into a room and interrogated us in French – which neither of us understood at the time – until somehow they realized we were who we claimed to be. Then, after a short time which seemed like days, we were allowed to proceed back to our billet. It was really scary because during those early days, after the liberation, there were punishments for Nazi solders trying to escape and collaborators, as they tried to ferret out and give traitors their due. One night, instead of a taxi cab, we were picked up in a large, well-lit GI bus in which we sat next to the windows like birds in a well-lit cage-within sight of cats. It was very scary because it made us, the only occupants besides the driver, wonderfully illuminated targets. To cap it all off, we hadn’t been told that the ultimate mission of this bus was to pick up wounded G.I.s from a hospital train arriving at the Gare St. Lazarre, a railroad station in the center of the city. I, never having been that close to casualties, was distressed to actually see what I had heard so much about.
Another subject we reminisced about was the entertainment that was made available to us G.I.s in Paris. There was ballet, opera, movies, dance halls, G.I. cabarets and especially the famous USO shows which featured mega stars like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. On one occasion we were in a theater awaiting the arrival of Glenn Miller, the famous band leader, but he never arrived. We later learned that his private plane went down over the English Channel. His band, however, arrived in a different plane and we were treated to his famous music, such as “Moonlight Serenade,” “Tuxedo Junction,” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Although it was eerie to be listening to his music without his being there, we “soldiered on.”
Now, when looking back on those visits, discussing our unique experiences, it somehow brought to a conclusion my tour of duty in WWII, and, particularly my stint with Bob in Paris.
Mel Corren was born in Stockton in 1924, attended local schools, served in Europe during World War II, and after returning home joined his family’s furniture business, M. Corren and Sons. In 1961 he and his brother Hillard opened The Brothers, a home furnishing/design studio, which ran until they both retired in 2000. Mel, his wife Harriet, their two sons, two grandchildren, along with their respective mates, make up their far-flung family. His literary accomplishments are the memoirs “I’ve Live It, I’ve Loved It” and “Schoolboy, Soldier Boy”, both on Amazon, as well as a collection of short stories. At 96, he remains active in civic affairs, including his ongoing advocacy for the revitalization of Stockton’s historic downtown district. Mel was honored as Stocktonian of the Year for 2015.