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Searching for American “Mercy Ships” and magnanimity in French Archives

Marcellin Ma

Laptop in hand, I read and reread the notes and questions I had prepared for this day. I was waiting anxiously in the small parking lot just in front of Gare de Golfe Juan - Vallauris, a small train station between Cannes and Nice, France, for the person I would be interviewing, Monsieur Lecuye. “Êtes-vous l'étudiant américain?” a French gentleman in his 60s asked as he walked up to me. “Oui. Vous etez Monsieur Lecuyer?” I responded, trying my best not to stammer and deliver my prepared introduction. As if on cue, the afternoon rain of the Cote d'Azur began as Monsieur Lecuyer and I hastily retreated into a café across the street from the train station.

Last summer, aided by the generous financial support of Susan Tarrow Summer Research Fellowship from the Cornell Institute for European Studies (CIES), I went to France for six weeks to conduct an independent undergraduate research project concerning the U.S. government organized humanitarian relief operations in southern France during the early months of the World War Two. After being defeated by Nazi Germany in June 1940, France was divided into the occupied zone in the north and the “free zone” in the south with Marshal Pétain as head of French state and Vichy as the capital. The country, already humiliated and isolated, soon faced the prospect of famine due to a severe winter, a drought in spring, wartime conditions, and destructions of food stocks. The Vichy government’s efforts to ship wheat from overseas were severely hindered by presence of a British naval blockade. However, the American Red Cross, working with the U.S. State Department, chartered two “mercy ships,” S.S. Cold Harbor and S.S. Exmouth, to deliver hundreds of tons of relief supplies, mainly for children, to French Mediterranean port city, Marseille, on March 10, 1941 and April 7, 1941, respectively. Now after nearly 80 years, I believe that America’s actions during this uncertain period of history deserve to be reevaluated as both part of a strategic and prescient diplomatic policy of President Roosevelt and a greater tradition of American magnanimity.

The café was half empty on this rainy day. We sat down at a small table by the window. Outside, the streets were still decorated with French national flags of all size and shapes from the feverish celebration of the World Cup won by the French national football team the day before. Looking around, it was hard to imagine that in April 1941 crowds of several thousand French children and their parents gathered along all sides of the central squares of many southern coastal cities, like nearby Nice and Cannes, holding American flags and shouting “Merci! Merci!” “Vive l’Amerique!’ “Vive la France!” when the American “mercy ship,” S.S. Exmouth, had just unloaded hundreds of tons of wheat, powdered milk, evaporated and condensed milk, infant clothes, and vitamins for eagerly waiting French children. It was this exact image that led me to France searching for any related documents, evidence, and recollections, that might help me recreate the picture of these “mercy ships” and their noble mission.

Weeks earlier I began my research in the Archives nationales (France) outside of Paris where I retrieved internal reports on the deteriorating public health in southern France in early spring of 1941 and increasing concerns of the U.S. government over some Vichy politicians’ willingness to collaborate with Nazi Germany and their animosity towards Britain. As I traveled further south to the French Riviera, where much of the American aid was distributed, I found that many municipal and departmental archives had preserved entire boxes of documents from the wartime, many of which appeared to have been unopened for decades. The files in the Archives départemental des Bouches-du-Rhone in Marseille revealed the close cooperation between the American Red Cross staffs and members of local French charitable organizations while planning and distributing the relief goods. Similarly, copies of Le Petit Marsaillais and Le Petit Provencal, newspapers published during the war, stored in the Archives Municipales de Marseille, aided me in gauging the public opinion at the time. Both papers gave front page space to the arrival of the two American mercy ships and boasted photos of the U.S. Ambassador Leahy and the director of the American Red Cross in Europe, Richard Allen, the two key figures behind the operation, posing with smiling French children and their families around the harbor and along the streets. This sentiment was echoed in papers from other cities I visited, such as Nice, Cannes, and Toulon on the coast and Le Puy hundreds of miles inland. Besides daily reports on the growing list of rationed items and the tragic condition of France’s million POWs in Germany, the newspaper ran editorials praising America for its people’s friendship and generosity and sending much needed foods and clothing items to French children.

Based upon all this information, I went into the interview with the conviction that President Roosevelt’s decision not to abandon unoccupied France and to send aid to the “free zone” seemed to have won the hearts and minds of French people at the time. However, whether or not the timely but limited aid had generated any long-lasting memories in decades thereafter was not clear from what I could have found. I needed help from Monsieur Lecuyer.

I was introduced to Monsieur Lecuyer, a local historian on WWII, through the Municipal Archives of Cannes roughly a week earlier. Though born after the war, Monsieur Lecuyer grew up in a family that had been deeply impacted by the war. His father was a soldier in the “free zone,” and his older siblings spent their childhoods during the war. Among the first questions I posed to Monsieur Lecuyer was how his family was affected by the famine or rationing programs, specifically in 1941, and whether they were beneficiaries of aid from charitable organizations, like the American Red Cross, at the time. To my surprise, Monsieur Lecuyer responded that, for the most part, food was never a problem even in 1941 for his family. In fact, according to him, it was more difficult to purchase clothes than food for his family.

A little taken aback by his answer, I pulled up a photo of an old news article about the severity of the famine and limited amounts of foodstuffs being released to the public. Monsieur Lecuyer then explained that because his father was a soldier, and his family had been in the countryside at the time, they always had money and rationing was less severe. Rather, it was the cities and urban areas that were the worst hit by the food shortage. Quietly contemplating this new information, I realized Monsieur Lecuyer’s story fit with my earlier finding that the aid resources provided by the U.S. would first be sent to the urban areas, both due to ease of logistics and to alleviate the worst suffering. For example, in Marseille, food shortage and malnutrition among children were exacerbated by the influx of refugees from the north and other European countries entering the city. As we continued talking, Monsieur Lecuyer made it clear that the hundreds of tons of humanitarian supplies sent by America, while likely appreciated by those who received it at the time, was a token gesture when it came to relieving the suffering. Rather, the French people, even those once lived under the Vichy regime, preferred to see the big picture and remembered America as, first, Britain’s ally and later aided one of the liberators of Europe from Nazis domination.

Monsieur Lecuyer and I continued to talk for another hour before parting ways. Looking at the now torrential rain, I felt déjà vu. During my travels, I visited several important landmarks of America’s presence during the Vichy years, such as the U.S. Embassy and Ambassador Leahy’s residence in Vichy and the old U.S. Consulate and the American Red Cross Headquarter in Marseille. However, each of these sites had been converted, over the years, into something else, a private residence, a school building, or a real estate office, without so much as a plaque to indicate their historical significance. As I sat in my car on the way back to Marseille, I realized the reality of my feelings: I was searching for a forgotten moment in history with the evidence readily available but its significance had lost to collective memory.

Regardless of any feelings of apprehension, with my now extensive research material of thousands of pages gathered on my trip to France, I intend to produce, as my senior honors thesis, a microhistory of the American Red Cross chartered “mercy ships,” S.S. Cold Harbor and S.S. Exmouth, and their hundreds of tons of relief supplies delivered to Marseille then distributed to hungry children and their families throughout unoccupied France in spring 1941. I believe this story depicts an important and morally uplifting moment in the midst of growing despair in a defeated, isolated, and starved France.