By Herman J. Obermayer
From Chapter 6: The War With France

“Someday years from now, when a dinner partner of mine looks at me with that stop-boring-me look, I’ll pull the rabbit out of my hat. I will tell her how I watched Goering, Hess, and Jodl squirm and make faces during the Nuremberg trials,” wrote Herman Obermayer on the day he watched prosecutors present the first documentary evidence that the Nazis had killed six million Jews. This first hand account, written by one of the last remaining eyewitnesses to the Nuremberg trials, along with hundreds of letters Mr. Obermayer sent home to his parents during World War II, can be found in his new book, Soldiering for Freedom.

A retired journalist, editor-publisher, and former Pulitzer Prize juror, Herman Obermayer’s Soldiering for Freedom contains letters and recollections from the time he was drafted as a young student at Dartmouth College through basic training and his eventual experience in the European campaign. Each chapter begins with present day commentary on the lessons America learned six decades ago, offering a unique perspective on today’s great political and social questions. In this issue, we feature a segment from “Chapter 6: The War With France,” in which Mr. Obermayer provides a glimpse into the internal conflict between the U.S. soldiers, who saw themselves as liberators in a just cause, and the French citizens, who oftentimes resented the American presence.

Petroleum products represented roughly half of the tonnage carried to Europe to supply American troops in World War II. Shortly after D-Day, military engineers begin constructing an above-ground gasoline pipeline to guarantee a reliable, steady flow to Allied armies. Tankers offloaded at a floating dock at the Atlantic Ocean port of Cherbourg. The pipeline’s final decanting terminal constantly moved eastward as American and British forces advanced toward Hitler’s Third Reich. It crossed the Rhine River on the first pontoon bridge shortly after the Corps of Engineers completed its construction. The U.S. Army’s gasoline pipeline was one of its most vital war facilities—and it was regularly sabotaged by the French.

As a member of a pipeline pumping-station crew, I observed firsthand how effectively French saboteurs, both amateur and professional, slowed the forward progress of America’s armies. My comrades and I watched the Meuse-Argonne region’s peasant farmers hamper the operations of one of the mightiest fighting machines ever assembled. From our perspective, they were “the enemy.”

The pipeline’s above-ground construction made it a tempting target for both Nazi agents and petty crooks. Stealing gasoline was easy. The only tools required were a small monkey wrench and a butter knife. Breaks happened almost daily, sometimes several times a day. Almost all of the major ruptures occurred after a Frenchman failed to properly close a coupling he had loosened to steal “a little essence.” (“Essence” is the French word for “gasoline.”) Crooks and saboteurs had the same ruse; they needed a few gallons for an essential tractor. Still, virtually all of the soldiers who were assigned to pipeline duty believed most of the French peasants were Nazi sympathizers, or, at best, black marketers who did not care that their stealing hurt America’s war effort. We despised them. And the dislike was mutual. Most of the pipeline’s neighbors appeared to prefer the Germans to us.

Pipeline breaks were a serious problem. Several times in the course of the war gasoline shortages halted major troop movements. A total rupture often meant a loss of ten thousand gallons and the shutdown of pumping operations for at least an hour. Many of the breaks created gasoline geysers. A lighted cigarette near a geyser could (and did) set homes ablaze and kill innocent people. Medics, like me, were assigned to pipeline companies because of the fire danger. There were many serious fires along the pipeline’s route, but to my knowledge, none of them was ever reported in the American press.