Memorial Days

‘Group of soldiers sitting on truck with boy,’ African American Museum & Library at Oakland Photograph Collection.

There is something I love about this picture. Something about pride and camaraderie and self-awareness, maybe, in what must have been a hell of a difficult situation. And then there’s the kid posing with this group of GIs.

But before I get into that, where did this picture come from? Someone posted it on Facebook, in the Oakland history group, as a Memorial Day tribute, I think. The picture was captioned there “A 1945 picture of Soldiers in Oakland, CA.” As commenters quickly pointed out, the background in the shot suggests someplace in Europe — France, or Italy maybe — but not Oakland. And then there’s the kid posing with the group. Maybe these troops were among those who had just liberated his town from the Germans.

Is there some way of nailing down who and where these men are? I’d love to see whether anything is written on the back of the photo. It’s a holiday, though, and I have no idea whether the library that holds this photograph has been open at all during our lockdown the last couple of months. Maybe I’ll find that out tomorrow.

There is one potentially helpful detail in the picture: The numbers on the right side (left side in the picture) of the truck’s bumper: 3A-444Q.

My guess was that “3A” stands for “3rd Army,” the force that Gen. George Patton commanded and which is renowned for, among other things, its rapid push across France in the summer and early fall of 1944, after D-Day. Then maybe the 444Q stood for — what? A regimental unit?

I found a post — because you can find a post about just about anything when you go looking — that helped sort out the truck number. It includes a picture of vehicles attached to the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, originally part of the 3rd Army. The markings on those vehicles read “3A-442-I.” From there, I just looked for names of units numbered “444.” I came across a mention of a 444th Quartermaster Truck Company, described as a segregated, all-black unit.

Where were they deployed during the war? It appears they were attached to the 3rd Army’s 4th Armored Division in France and Germany in 1944 and ’45. They’re cited as having played a role in several major actions: Arracourt, the Battle of the Bulge and the final Allied offensive into Germany in March and April 1945. They were likely part of the legendary “Red Ball Express,” responsible for supplying the 3rd Army during its race toward Germany.

The Bulge Bugle, the official publication of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Inc., mentioned the 444th in its May 2005 edition:

“… Many an unsung deed of heroism, endurance and devotion to duty were quietly chalked up by the Third’s QM truckers. They rolled on unceasingly through German strafing, bullets, artillery fire, ice and snow, fatigue, hunger, blackouts and every other imaginable obstacle.

Trucks of the 444th QM Truck Company moved the 4th Armored Division from the Saar to Belgium in 17 hours. In their usual fashion the 4th Armored Division fought their way through to relieve the heroic bastion of Bastogne and the tide began to turn in our favor. …”

I can’t find a lot more on the 444th. A couple of records concern company members who died during their service and are buried in cemeteries in France and England. One document concerns a soldier who was convicted of murdering a German civilian during the last month of the war. Somewhere out there, there’s an Army publication called “How the 444 Rolled,” but I can’t find any evidence of it online or in libraries.

Looking at that picture, though, makes me want to know about the men there: what they had come through to get to that street, wherever it was; what they went on to; what was waiting for them in the United States when they got back from a brutal tour of duty. On the off chance anyone who knows more about the 444th comes across this, I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can track down the original of the picture to see if there’s anything on the back.

Your Paris Church of the Day

As part of our pre-PBP Paris sightseeing mini-frenzy, I found myself standing in front of a few churches again today; not just churches: structures that were centuries and centuries old, that were built to fulfill some promise or other to God, that were built as an expression of this king's or that cardinal's clout and deep pockets. But most of all, structures that, whatever the secular goings on that raised them, took shape at the hands of some inspired artists.

I took note of the church above and below when I started studying the sculptural elements above the main entrance and wondered whether the lower scene — a man who looks like he's about to be stoned by an angry crowd — depicted the death of St. Stephen (first martyr and, since I like my dad before me share the name, a subject of personal interest). I noticed that the initials SG and SE were carved on either side of the entrance: SG for St. Genevieve, some of whose remains turn out to be interred here, and SE for St. Etienne, the French for St. Stephen). The church is St.-Etienne-du-Mont, after its setting atop a hill above the Latin Quarter; it was completed close to 400 years ago.

Back to the sculpture above the entrance. The resurrected Jesus holds pride of place just below a rose window. He's got a spiky-looking halo and looks irresistible and a little pissed off.

Immediately above the doorway, a supine St. Stephen is about to earn his way onto the church calendar despite the presence of an angel who, though appearing benificent, doesn't seem the least inclined to stay the hands of a bunch of guys who look not at all hesitant to cast the first stone.

I don't mean to sound irreligious. I was brought up with some version of these scenes, and I find them stirring and moving on a deep level (I even went into the church, dipped my fingers into the holy water font and crossed myself). Part of what's moving to me, though, is the idea of the generations and generations of mostly anonymous artists, artisans, and laborers who erected this city of churches. What a legacy they left.


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Sacred Heart, Sacred Bike Ramp


My first full day in France was spent walking around central Paris with the general goal of getting to the Sacre Coeur cathedral on the top of Montmartre. We (friend Bruce Berg and I) saw lots of old Paris stuff on the way; that’s not meant to be dismissive, but the city has a feel and appearance that just sort of swallows you up. The Seine. The bridges across the Seine. The churches — we also stopped at the Madeleine, which until today I didn’t know was French for Magdalen. The public buildings, like the National Assembly and the Louvre and the Palais Royal. The public squares and parks, like the Place Vendome. The place is big, it’s filled with history and beautifully made buildings, and it’s hard to conceive when you drop in that it has a life quite apart from your search for a public toilet or a panini sandwich and an Orangina. But it does.

Thom and Kate went to Montmartre in 2003, when I was out riding to Brest and back. They didn’t tell me that much about it, though, beyond the fact they had a great day up there. I was a little taken aback by the crowds in the streets leading up to the top of the hill where the cathedral is built. People are drawn by the dramatic spectacle of the church up there and also by the view the hilltop affords. But there’s a whole Fisherman’s Wharf aspect to the scene, too — some of the surrounding streets and parks are packed with tourists and shops and street performers.

The one added attraction today: a downhill bike ramp that starts right up at the cathedral and twists down the southern face of Montmartre to a spectacular end in the park at the foot of the hill. I asked one of the workmen what it was for — actually, first I asked if he understood English — and he told me that there’s some sort of X Games-like downhill competition up there this weekend. I suppose it’s not any crazier than ski jumping — but that’s still pretty crazy.


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