Interview about "WWII Voices"

Claudine Le Moal Interviews Hilary Kaiser

French-American screen-writer and Bay Area resident, Claudine Le Moal (CLM), interviews Hilary Kaiser (HK) August 2, 2011, in Berkeley, California after reading Hilary's new ebook: WWII Voices: American GI's and the French Women Who Married Them


CLM: I'm fascinated by the stories that you wrote. I'm also curious how you became involved in these two projects of veterans and French war brides. Where did your interests come from and what motivated you to follow through with these projects?

HK: Well, as I think I stated in the Prologue to the book, my father had fought in Japan and he never really spoke to us a lot about his war experiences, so when the opportunity presented itself with the veterans…well…And also because I interviewed Phyllis Michaux, a woman who lives in Paris who's the WAC in the book, and she said, "You know there are some really interesting stories of veterans who live in Paris, and you should try to interview them before they pass away." And so that's what I did. Of the 20 or so veterans I interviewed, more than half have since passed away. As for the war brides project…the fact that my father met my mother during wartime, that they married two weeks later and that he went back to the war in the Pacific. That intrigued me. And something else was always on my mind. When we moved to Paris in 1962, the concierge in my building had an illegitimate child from a GI.

CLM: How did you go about contacting or finding the people you interviewed?

HK: Well, in two ways. For the veterans, it was through Phyllis Michaux, who gave me some names. And the American community in Paris is rather small, so people gave me names of other people. And sometimes it was just a coincidence. For example, I interviewed Sim Copans, the news broadcaster in the book, and he put me in touch with a French composer who had been living in Brittany in La Haye du Puits, and he put me in touch with an American composer who was a veteran. It was mostly boule de neige as we say in French. Or "word of mouth." For the war brides, it was also through personal contacts and I also advertized through the newsletters of various French consulates in the United States.

CLM: I would imagine you found many more women survivors in terms of war brides than veterans.

HK: Yes, people are now in their 80's and passing away. And actually I did the veteran interviews in 1993, so that's awhile ago. And they were already in their late 60's or 70's then.

CLM: What impressed me was the diverse groups of people, the diverse walks of life, and socio-economic situations.

HK: Yes, that was very lucky. Because the veterans weren't all officers by any means. There were a lot of enlisted men, too. What was interesting was that some of them are quite well-known people in the American community of Paris. There was Ridgway Knight, who was an officer and became an ambassador, and then there was another GI who was a cook. He's still around, and he's now commander of one of the American veterans associations in Paris.

CLM: What also interested me was the reluctance of some soldiers to talk about their war experiences, especially men in that age group who fought in WWII. The reluctance about sharing with you. How did you manage to draw it out of them?

HK: Remember it was 1993, and it wasn't…Well, there have been various projects since then. People such as Stephen Ambrose and Stephen Spielburg have interviewed people. I had some refusals. There were people I contacted who didn't want to talk about the war. One or two had been interviewed quite a lot by the press, so they were used to talking, but most of them hadn't. And I guess…well, at first I thought being a woman would be a handicap, but I don't think it was. I guess we're more "touchy feely", and the veterans felt okay with me. As for the women, they had never been interviewed before. There hadn't been interest in French women like that before. But now there's been a lot of interest in war brides—British war brides, Australian war brides, and so the French women now realize they had a unique experience as well. It sort of elevated them to a celebrity status, so to speak. Doing the interviews was a wonderful experience. That's what's so great about oral history. You get to meet interesting people, and they share their stories with you. It's neat.

CLM: So why do you think these people [the veterans], who are obviously very patriotic and nationalistic, decided to stay in France rather than go back to their own country?

HK: I think they liked the life style in France. You know, some of them, most of them, married French women, and I think the wives were probably more comfortable in France. Or they retired to France after moving around if they stayed in the army.

CLM: And I guess most of them spoke French.

HK: Well, for a few of them, their French is still faltering. They're part of the American community and can get by just speaking English.

CLM: I'm reflecting, as you say, about that and all the American literary people, Hemingway, etc. in Paris during the 1920s. And some of them didn't speak French. There's an interesting book, The Paris Wife

HK: I read it, too. Well, you can live in France [without speaking French]. I can give you a whole list of the American associations that exist in Paris.

CLM: This is probably more of a personal question, but you probably identify with a lot of the experiences, these people [the veterans] had. What do you think they missed most about the United States, and what they miss least, in their decision to stay in France?

HK: Hum… I'm not so sure about what they missed the most—because this is another generation, and they've lived in France so long. I think they probably missed their families when they settled in France. It would be the same for the French women in the U.S. It was the family. The French women living in America missed the food, the life style, "the old stones", as one person put it. The men…hum…some of them worked in the U.S., and they thought it went well. And they would criticize French bureaucracy, the slowness and the paper work. But on the whole…I remember one gentleman saying it was more "interesting" in France, there was a world view, it wasn't so limited to your state or your city. Even when you turn on the news, there was this world view in the news. That type of thing. They appreciate that. Most of them enjoy or enjoyed living in France.

CLM: And in terms of your own experience? What do you like most and least about living in France?

HK: Well, what I like most is…I do like the culture. And I like the language, the world view, the good food. What everybody else says.What I don't like so much is the negativity. I find French people complain a lot. I know that's a stereotype, but I think it's true. They see the glass half empty, rather than half full. This gets on my nerves sometimes. They sometimes consider Americans too optimistic and too idealistic. Too "upbeat." They also say Americans are too naïve and gullible, that we believe everything people tell us. French people are usually sarcastic. They're much more hesitant, and much more reserved. That can make it hard working with them. Oftentimes…I had a career in education in France…Well, my American way is keep to a schedule and to finish. So you're in a meeting and you get off into these arguments, and you never keep to a schedule! But I do like the fact that you can negotiate in France. They say "no" in the beginning, because that's the way the French are, but you can always negotiate. You can often win them round. Whereas in America, sometimes you have a stupid rule, and everybody sticks to the stupid rule. There's no negotiation.

CLM: That's interesting. In France, it's true, arguing is a pastime.

HK: And here in the U.S. it's more to keep a consensus.

CLM: Did you notice any common thread in all the interviews with the men and women? Any specific characteristics running through?

HK: Well, at the time when I was interviewing the veterans, because they had different socio-economic backgrounds, etc. I didn't really find so many common threads. But I did find some threads with the women. I found that most of them had a pretty hard time when they moved to America back in the 40's because the image of French women wasn't so great. And a lot of the American mothers-in-law didn't accept these French wives because they thought the French girls were stealing their sons. And who were these French girls anyway? It wasn't always easy for the French women. They had accents when they spoke English. And it wasn't like the men, being American, being the heroes in France. These were young French girls, often from the country, not always sophisticated. They often had difficult times and situations. They would end up with mothers-in-law, with alcoholic husbands, because the men started drinking during the war. Well, you see, this drinking problem, which I heard from the women, didn't come out in the men's interviews. I guess they didn't have the introspection, or whatever you call it, to see that there were problems like that. This was true on both sides. Because the women complained about the drinking and other problems, but I don't think they always realized what the men had gone through during the war, their traumatic experiences. Everyone married so young; the women didn't really know the men they married. They didn't realize where the men came from, the problems they had during the war. This type of thing. So I guess that was a common thread.

CLM: To some extent in the book you mention that the French women were attracted to the smiles of the men…this kind of reflects American optimism…

HK: You're right. And this was especially true after the war because the French women had been teenagers during the war. France had been occupied. They couldn't go dancing. They didn't have enough food, enough heat in the apartment buildings. And so these Americans…as you said, they had the smiles, the chewing gum, the chocolate, the nylons!

CLM: And for the most part they were men of a certain stature. They were heroes for young girls. But, as you say, they suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, like our soldiers now, and that wasn't considered at all…

HK: I mention that in the introduction to my French war brides book. There's a wonderful film, "The Best Years of Our Lives" from the 50's. You have three soldiers returning to this imaginary town in the Middle West and having to go back to the jobs they had before the war. And how people don't even realize what they've gone through. The soldiers can't stop drinking, and people don't understand the stress and the experiences they've had. One man comes back without an arm. It was very, very difficult for them to go back to everyday life. And I'm sure it's the same for the soldiers who've fought in Irak and Afghanistan, but at least we recognize now that PTSD exists.

CLM: War transforms individuals, their psyche. This reminds me of a documentary, called "[something] Guardian Angels." It takes place in eastern Europe. The men come back, and they almost all have drinking problems. The wives in this village decide that the solution for that is to kill off their husbands. They proceed to get these poisonous potions they sell to each other. They get rid of a lot of the veterans before people realized …There'd been a lot of spousal abuse. And they couldn't get any recourse, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. It's a really fascinating documentary.

CLM: Speaking about the atrocities…How do you think American veterans—particularly those in France, but also those here in the U.S. -- feel about the collaboration of their French contemporaries with the Germans? I mean, the Vichy government and all that in light of what we know now. I read that the Germans often commended the French for doing a better job in rounding up people than they could. I don't know if…

HK: Well, in several of the stories, there's mention of just after the war when survivors of the Holocaust arrived back in Paris on the trains, how emaciated they were. And I remember one soldier went into Auschwitz or one of the other camps just after it had been liberated, so I think they realized…

CLM: Yes, I think that's true, but I'm just wondering how that made them feel about the French whom they were fighting to liberate, when they realized that the French were sometimes complicit.

HK: That reminds me. I think it was Ridgway Knight who said that all of a sudden as soon as they were liberated, all these Resistants come out of the walls, many more Resistants than there actually were I've heard historians talk about the occupation. They ask, "What would YOU have done if were occupied and were in this situation? Would you all be heroes?" It's perhaps not so sure. But to actually round up more people than the Germans, well, that, no. That was terrible.

CLM: Yes, it was atrocious. I have another question. Have you kept in contact with the veterans?

HK: Well, yes, particularly with one. And he's willing to help me publicize the ebook. But, unfortunately, I don't think a lot of veterans use the Internet. I do hope the new book will come out as a paperback or an audio book. I have kept in touch. But recently, a lot of them have passed away. That's sad. And a lot of the French war brides are beginning to pass away, too. I did that book on them, and several of the ones I interviewed have also passed away. It was wonderful the connections that were made interviewing everyone.

CLM: Yes, you followed a part of their lives.

HK: Yes, and when it was a book, they were able to share it with their families.

CLM: Would you have changed anything about your approach if you had the opportunity all over again—maybe the angle of the book or ….

HK: One thing that I really regret about doing the war brides project, but also for the veterans, is ..Well, when I did the veterans project in 1993, I was under pressure, there were time issues…I had some leads but unfortunately I wasn't able to follow through. I wanted to find some African-American soldiers. There was one who was known by the American Legion in Paris, but I couldn't get to him in time for the publication of the book. And it was the same for the war brides. I wanted to, I would have preferred to have a larger sample that included French women who married people of color and the experiences that they had, which were probably a good deal different than some of the women that I interviewed. Some of the women had difficult lives, and for others things didn't go so badly for them. Still, I would have liked to have a broader sampling of what actually happened. Marrying an enlisted man, going back to the South where there was segregation. Actually, they couldn't live in certain states. Mixed marriages weren't accepted. The whole issue of segregation of the army was very interesting, too. It was terrible. What was interesting, what I read and from what some of the French women told me, was that black soldiers felt much more accepted in France than they were back in the U.S. And this was true after WWI as well.

CLM: Well, I think there was slavery in both countries. But of course the French have always been in love with black culture. And having had colonies, they were much more acquainted with…

HK: Yes, there was immigration. And yet somebody did tell me that there was discrimination against the Senegalese in the French army. I haven't really researched that.

CLM: There's the movie "Indigene" which deals with Algerians in the French army. In terms of being given small rations. France has always been a very ethno-centric country. It's open to …. But you're never quite one of them.

CLM: In terms of publishing companies, did you approach an American or a French one first? How did you proceed?

 HK: Well, we're talking about 5 different books here. The first book was my first veterans' book in 1994, and I self-published that one. It was basically the same as the book Veteran Recall published 10 years later by Editions Heimdal in Bayeux, France. They asked me for the rights of the self-published book. So I redid the book, I edited it, I put in a chronology, I asked an American general to write a preface to it. Heimdal brought that book out both in English and in French. There is an interesting story about the French edition, which is called Souvenirs de Veterans. I was teaching at a French military school in 2003, and the colonel who was the head of the school had heard about my tales of American veterans living in France. He didn't speak or read English, so he suggested that the book be translated by one of his employees who was a professional translator but didn't have much to do at that time. So the colonel's employee translated the book into French for me. But what was very unusual was that this gentleman is blind. I sent him the English text over the Internet and he would somehow transcribe that text onto his Braille machine, translate it, then put it back onto a computer and send it to a seeing friend of his who'd been an editor. The friend made a few corrections, then sent the corrected text to me, then I'd send it on to the publisher. Most of these stories are now the ones in the new ebook WWII Voices: American GI's and the French Women Who Married Them, which was brought out by Summertime Publications and published at Amazon and Smashwords.

As for the French war brides, there are four stories and a paper that I gave on the French war bride phenomenon in the new ebook. Those four stories are stories that have never been published before. But I had other stories that I collected and wrote a book about that took me 8 years to write called Des Amours de GI's: les petites fiancées du Débarquement. I wrote it in French and sent it out to various French publishers at the end of 2003, and two days after I sent it out, I got a telephone call from the Editor-in-Chief of one, Editions Tallandier, saying that he loved the manuscript and that he wanted to publish it. I was very, very lucky. That came out in 2004 for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. After that, I did a lot of canvassing trying to find an American publisher, and I finally found one. They paid me to translate the book into English and acquired the rights from Editions Tallandier.  It's called Praeger, and that imprint has since been bought out…well, it first went to Houghton Mifflin and then it was bought out by ABC-Clio in Santa Barbara, California. Unfortunately, ABC-Clio only does textbooks. And I'm very disappointed because my book only came out in hardback and is quite expensive. They never brought it out in a paperback edition. I would love that book to come out as a trade paperback.

CLM: So your books are accessible through Amazon?

HK: Yes, well, in addition to the ebook on Amazon and Smashwords, the other books are all available on and the French Amazon, Or directly from the publisher. The French war brides book in French is available through Editions Tallandier, and Souvenirs de Veterans from Editions Heimdal. I'm hoping the new ebook will eventually come out as a paperback or an audio book.

CLM: Have you ever considered approaching film companies for some of the stories?

HK: Well, when the French war brides book first came out in French a man from Miramax, an American in Paris, seemed interested. But that didn't go through. I remember him telling me some of my stories are sad, and that he needed a Hollywood ending! A French woman I know is now possibly interested in doing something, but so far nothing has happened about that.

CLM: TV 5 might be interested. There was a good one about the Black GI's in France on TV 5.  "In the Shadows", or something like that. It was really well-done.

HK: What happens in France is that there's always a big "push" whenever there's a commemoration. Like every 5 years for D-Day or something like that. So the next one, I imagine, will be in 2014 because D-Day was in 1944.  I've had several people approach me about doing some sort of documentary about French war brides. And, frankly, I'm pretty sure that the documentary "Cigarettes et bas de nylon" that appeared on French T.V. was partially inspired by my book in French on French war brides, Des Amours de GI's, but I guess I can't prove anything.

CLM: Well, if there are a lot of similarities, perhaps you could… I think little vignettes would be good for a film. And for the Americans, the fact that your protagonists don't die is kind of a Hollywood ending! They live to a ripe old age, so…Well, I guess a lot of the stories are more of interest in France than in the U.S., but then, as an independent film….Or even short stories of the war, with archival footage. That would be interesting.  I think young people, particularly, learn a lot more through visual and film because they're more oriented that way. And certainly a lot of people are losing touch with history because everything is so fast-paced they hardly have the time to concentrate on the present. I'm always amazed when they ask college students who fought in the Civil War, they say the Germans or something like that. Jay Leno does something called "Jay Walking" where he interviews college students and he asks them the simplest questions, and they struggle. They have no clue. When asked about Thomas Jefferson, they'll say, "Didn't he have a band or something?" It's terrible. I'm thinking some of this history, if we don't learn a lesson from it, it'll repeat itself. I think the malleable form, the way to teach kids, is the movie.

HK: Well, storytelling seems to work well in schools, and I do that. But you have to have age-appropriate material.

CLM: Yes, the whole oral tradition is very interesting. Well, thank you very much.

HK: Thank YOU.