Thursday, 26 July 2012
La Vie Parisienne circa 1953
By Ned Smith
I often tell people that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. So many times in my life, “I’ve taken the road less traveled” like in Frost’s poem and found myself in a situation that I could have never have imagined possible.
As an adolescent, I learned about Paris and France from Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald but I never would have dreamed about being there just a few years out of high school.
The Marines who were part of the embassy security detachment at the U.S. Embassy in Paris were assigned to “Special Foreign Duty with the State Department” and they received full pay and allowances from the Marine Corps as well as per diem, housing and even clothing allowance from State.
The clothing allowances were provided because State had agreed with the French government that the Marines would not appear on the street in uniform. (“U.S. Go Home” graffiti was becoming a common sight in the City of Lights.)
A British tailor was contracted to provide us with two suits, an overcoat and a hat plus we got cash to spend for shirts, ties and socks. (Marine Corps issue tee shirts and boxers were okay.)
Here I am in my new State Department duds at the Longchamps race track in Paris on my day off:
Our duties at the Embassy were not particularly taxing but we were responsible for the physical security of all embassy buildings 24/7. So we pulled round-the-clock duty - eight hours on and 16 off for a four-day tour, then two or three days off.
The midnight-to-eight shift was the most tedious. The buildings (there were eight of them) were for the most part deserted so we walked the halls and checked for safes and classified cabinets left open and waited for the dawn.
The street sweepers began their clean-up of the Place de La Concorde just before sunrise and I’d watch them clean the sidewalks and the gutters with their long brooms. I suppose whoever is responsible for security now watches the CCTV monitor.
Sometimes things got a little more exciting. Just a few months after I arrived on station in Paris, they executed the Rosenbergs in the U.S. for treason and we had a four alarm crisis at the Embassy.
Eight years after V-E Day, Paris shook with the widespread reaction to the condemnation and subsequent execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Their guilt would be confirmed many years later but at the time it seemed that all of Paris converged on the American Embassy to protest the execution.
The French police tried to establish a perimeter around the entrance. They used their two-handed batons and chain-weighted capes to stop or discourage intruders but with thousands of demonstrators engulfing the Place de la Concorde, the security of the Embassy was seriously threatened.
The Marines mounted machine guns and stood guard “locked and loaded” until everyone went home.
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