Jack Walsh was just out of high school when, after six months’ training, he was assigned to a base in France. This summer, aged 72, he returned to the Châteauroux-Déols Nato airbase, in the Indre, with other veterans. It was closed in 1967, when France left the military command structure of Nato, and now operates as a test ground for planes and freight airport and scrapage centre. He spoke to Nick Rowswell about life in France in the 1950s, how he thought the country had changed, and how the experience of living here for three years had changed him.
How did an Air Force corporal from Brooklyn end up in Châteauroux?
Well, I joined the US Air Force after leaving high school. After basic training, the air force sent me to meteorological school for six months. At the end of the training, based on your standing, you could choose your assignment. They were written up on a huge board in an amphitheatre. On the list, there was an assignment in France and I chose that one, because I had three years of high school French. I didn’t know I was going to end up in Châteauroux; the assignment was just a number; there was no name.
What about the base?
Châteauroux was a centre for maintenance and a logistical platform. We had no combat aircraft. Most of the planes that came here were transports, flying in from the States via Prestwick in Scotland. They would fly in for maintenance or bring supplies. I was working at the weather station in Châteauroux from September 1956 to September 1959. That’s quite a big slice of life for a young man. I was only 18 when I got here – a young rooky corporal, or a “two-striper” as we say in air force jargon.
From Brooklyn to deepest rural France: wasn’t it a bit of a culture shock?
Well, it helped having three years of French. As for the culture, I really didn’t understand it when I first got here. I said to myself that I’m going to be here for three years, I’ve got to absorb or be absorbed by the culture
I was very fortunate actually. In the weather service we worked 24/7, and we had four French meteorologists who worked with us, and on the night shift they’d come to me and say: “Please teach us English, help us improve our English.”
I told them I couldn’t: I’m from Brooklyn, I speak lousy English, but I asked them if they would help me with my French.
So, on the midnight shift when we worked in the weather station, we would just talk between operations. Then I got to know some French people who worked in the postal exchange and the American Express office, so I’d go out with them. I just tried to assimilate myself into the local community.
What was Châteauroux like in the 1950s?
I was here just 11 years after the war, so the economy was still shaky, and I was here during some pretty traumatic times.
The Algerian war was going on. Algeria was draining the French. I remember the day that French officers staged their putsch in Algeria. We thought there was going to be a coup d’état in France.
I happened to be downtown when the whole thing was going on. My French friends asked me why I was in town. They told me that the town had been declared off limits for American service personnel because of the coup d’état.
I don’t know what people were expecting – perhaps paratroopers over Châteauroux. Anyway an Algerian friend gave me a lift on his scooter and took me back to base. So we were restricted. But it cooled off within 24 hours. That was a crazy time though. All leave was cancelled for two weeks.
Then de Gaulle came to power. He wasn’t exactly pro-American...
You know, de Gaulle came to Châteauroux while I was here, I was downtown and he was there. He was so tall, he stood out with his uniform hat on, and I thought that he made such an easy target.
In terms of the political thing though, I was an enlisted man. I couldn’t get involved in anything, but we all had opinions at the time.
I thought de Gaulle was good for France frankly because after the war, they were down and out, economically and psychologically, and along comes de Gaulle saying “we are going to make France great again… I don’t need Nato, we are going to do it on our own… we’ll have our own atomic force.”
From a pride-in-your-country point of view, that would make me feel good. If I’d been a Frenchman at that time, I would have felt good about that.
What about the impact of the Americans on the locals?
Certainly a major economic impact. There were about 3,000 US service personnel on the base and the whole American community totalled about 6,000. There was even an American high school.
As for our behaviour towards the locals, in my personal opinion, there were times when I was embarrassed to be an American militaryman here. A lot of the young kids they sent over here had never been out of the States, many had never even been out of their towns.
Then they arrived here and there was a lot of loose living. In terms of being downtown, there was no control. On base there was control, but in they’d come to a bar, get drunk and go a little crazy sometimes.
Some of them treated the French very badly. They called them frogs and there were times that behaviour like this made me feel uncomfortable at being American.
I felt that I was more like an ambassador for my country. I wanted to learn about French culture and I wanted the French to learn about American culture; the problem was that, with the behaviour of many young guys, the French were seeing the worst of American culture.
Did you ever feel any anti-American sentiment when you were here?
There was a strong Communist party here, and once in a while, they would complain about the Americans being here and all that, but that’s part of the game. As I understand it, though, when the base was closed, there was a major demonstration by the locals. They went to Paris to protest at the closure.
On the whole, the locals were all very friendly, and sometimes we’d do favours like getting them American cigarettes. I made a few good friends and I’m still in contact with two of them.
Were there any GI brides?
One of our young lieutenants married a local girl and was then posted to Marseilles. I dated a couple of girls while I was here, but actually, the girl that I was kind of close to was an English girl. Her family used to come here to visit. She was from Carshalton. We were on the verge, but it didn’t work out.
If you wanted to meet girls, you had to go dancing. I loved dancing. On the weekends, we always went downtown to a dance hall called the Tivoli.
I remember the first time I went there, the French girls sitting round in groups, we would ask them to dance and they’d say no. If they didn’t know you, they wouldn’t bother with you.
Then a couple of GIs, actually they were black guys ironically, they knew a couple of the girls, and I asked one of the girls to dance. I was a good dancer, I was elected the best dancer of my high school. Anyway, when the girls saw that I could dance, they would dance with me.
So, after three years in Châteauroux, what happened?
I went back home to Brooklyn and I married the girl next door. When I went home though, I had a major adjustment problem. Where I had lived was all changed, it was a whole new world.
Did you stay in the air force?
I came over to France as a corporal, a two-striper. I left here as a two-striper. That’s because there were a lot of changes going on in the USAF after Korea, and they were cutting back on promotions, and it just seems that I was never able to hit it. Our commanding officer was on the “lousy list”, which meant that our unit was always bypassed. It didn’t matter how good you were.
I felt like I was never going to get ahead, so I left the air force.
Did you never think of settling in France?
Actually, I wanted to get discharged here. I wanted to stay in Europe, but I couldn’t find a regular job. There was a local guy here of a dubious character, shall we say. He had connections all over and I did a few favours for him. He wanted me to work for him, either in Paris as a bartender in a GI bar, or on the Riviera as a gigolo. Seriously, though, I wanted to stay in Europe because I loved Europe. I didn’t want to go home.
My experience here was very good for me. It helped me improve my French, and get a better understanding of the culture. It was a good experience for life. It probably shaped my life. When I left France, and finally left the air force, I tried everything I could to get back here, that was why I went into the travel business. I figured working for the airlines or a hotel group, I might get back France one day.
Do you have any happy gastronomic memories?
I really like French food and wine, but my all time favourite French meal, and this might surprise you, is the good old jambon beurre. It’s great at lunchtime, or after work, going to a café and having a jambon beurre and a good beer: freshly baked baguette cut in two spread with butter and a good thick slice of ham in the middle.
As for wine, I’m very fond of the Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. I’ll have to take some back, because I can't get it in the States.