Swabbie becomes interpreter during invasion of France

Roland Petit of La Casa mobile home park in North Port looks at a “Stars and Stripes” proclaiming in screaming red letters: ‘IT’S OVER.” On the table is another paper noting: “HITLER DEAD.” Sun photo by Don Moore

Roland Petit of La Casa mobile home park in North Port, Fla. served aboard an LST (Landing Ship Tank) and ashore as an interpreter in World War II.

It wasn’t easy. He had to fight his way into the Navy.

“I was in the last class that graduated from high school at Fall River, Mass. I received a deferment because I went to work for a company that manufactured gas masks for the Firestone Tire Co., Petit said.

“By 1943 my three older brothers were in the service. I finally got hold of someone I knew at the draft board and said, ‘Hey, I want to go, too.’ I took the Navy physical and flunked it the first time because I only weighed 118 pounds. The minimum weight to get in was 120. I quickly gained two pounds and they let me in,” the 85-year-old former Navy man said.

He was still learning how to be a seaman aboard ship in Norfolk, Va. on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He didn’t make it by convoy to the French navy base in Oran, Algeria until later that summer.

“On the way over I received a form that asked if I spoke a foreign language. I wrote in French because I grew up in a French-Canadian family with nine other brothers and sisters,” Petit recalled.

After loading their LST with tanks and other supplies their convoy set off on “Operation Dragoon,” the invasion of southern France by Allied forces.

“We landed at Cavalier Beach near Tropez, France along the French Riviera and faced little German resistance,” he said. “Hours before we arrived, French Army and Navy forces went ashore. We followed them ashore with our tanks and supplies,” Petit said.

After the Allies took control of the southern French coast, he and his naval unit were trucked up the coast to Toulon where they formed the U.S. Naval Detachment there. It was here were the Germans built an almost indestructible submarine pen that came under repeated Allied bombing and artillery attacks before they arrived.

A German U-boat hides in an almost impregnable submarine pen in France during World War II. These concrete structures were held by the Germans almost until the end of the war. Photo provided

“While in Toulon we had to contact some of the French military and police authorities. That’s where I started my interpreting,” he said. “I was doing the interpreting for our lieutenant who was in charge of our naval unit.

Among other things, Petit’s unit was involved in police investigations. One of his first cases involved the theft of a DUWK, an amphibious vehicle, filled with supplies.

“It was our job to recover the stolen vehicle. The lieutenant and I and a couple of others from our unit got into civilian clothes, used a civilian car and went looking for the DUWK. We got a tip that the vehicle might be in a barn on a farmer’s property on the outskirts of Toulon. We found it right there,” he said.

A short while later his unit and some other Navy outfits worked together to police the port of Marseille, the largest port on the Mediterranean.

“Once the German mines were cleared from the harbor it was our job to bring the American troops coming into Europe from ships off shore into Marseille,” Petit said. “Meanwhile our unit was also charged with patrolling the port city.”

He made friends with an 8-year-old French girl who showed up one day peering around the corner of a building watching what he and his buddies were doing. She finally got up enough nerve to ask him if he spoke French. When he assured her he did a friendship was formed.

“Her father was a college professor and her family didn’t have all they needed in the way of food. It was in short supply for civilians after the invasion,” he said.

“When I realized they had little or nothing to eat, I got the cook to give me a chunk of ham and some butter. This was food they hadn’t seen in years. It was just before Christmas and they invited me over to their house for dinner. What a difference, they had this lovely dinner in the midst of all this upheaval and killing all around them,” Petit remembered.

Just before V-E Day, Victory in Europe, the Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper printed for American troops, carried a huge black 144 point two word headline: “HITLER DEAD.” Petit still had one of the history-making editions in almost perfect condition.

“Wednesday, May 2, 1945, Adolf Hitler’s dead. German radio reported last night that the cause of the German dictator’s death was not disclosed, but reports for several days noted he was critically ill from a cerebral hemorrhage. There was no other confirmation of the Fuehrer’s death beyond the first announcement from Nazi radio.”

He also had the Wednesday, May 9, 1945 edition of the newspaper that proclaimed in 144 point bright red headlines across the front page: “IT’S OVER.”

“Rheims, France — The Rich Surrendered unconditionally to the Allies here at Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s forward headquarters at 2:41 a.m. Monday. The surrender terms call for the cessation of hostilities on all fronts at one minute past midnight (Double British Central Time).”

Even though it was over, over there, Petit would not be discharged until 1946. During that time he and his unit did a repeat performance in reverse. They transported thousands of American troops from Marseille to waiting ships off shore for the trip home.

When he finally reached the U.S.A. and the Brooklyn Navy Yard himself he spent the last month or so in the Navy in New York.

“I was a Petty Officer 2nd Class in a town that knew how to take care of the troops. What a great place to end your Naval career,” the old salt said. “If you were wearing your uniform you’d get free meals, free drinks and free tickets to Broadway shows at Radio City Music Hall.”

He spent a lot of time at the very end wining and dining a couple of good looking brunettes who happened to be WAVES, female naval personnel. Anything for the war effort.

This story first appeared in print in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. in June 2009. Republished with permission.

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