John Pugliese (French Resistance, WWII Veteran)
The year is 1940 and the purge had begun long before that year. Hitler's ideology of a dominant race is a product of many years before that, but his fighting force is finally beginning to expel those unfortunate enough to not be idealized as a part of the master class. The Fürher is establishing his dominance all across the Western European regions. France is in his way and there is no preventing his ferocious army's thunderous pace. Picture yourself at home, a free citizen of your thriving, democratic country. Your father is a well-loved hairstylist, known for his incredible talent and loved by Paris' greatest celebrities. Your mother tragically died ten years previous, but your family has done their best to pick up the pieces. You're well taken care of and considered wealthy by the majority.
Then, life begins to rapidly change. The war-drums begin to beat and you soon realize that your country is at the doorstep of a madman's dream. His army is one of the most dominant to ever take the world stage, and his frenetic desire to take your land is not met by a strong defense. Your world comes crashing down as Nazi reign is established and your peers are randomly chosen to oil the Fürher's war machine. A curfew is established, German military patrols the streets, laws are changed to benefit Hitler's stranglehold over your home, and all at once life is drastically different. Democracy is dead. You are simply another cog in the wheel, and any talents you'd previously honed will now be completely disregarded. You are a second-class citizen in your own homeland, no longer allowed to enjoy the luxuries of a life you'd once known so well. Would you fight back?
There's an inherent problem with such an elementary question. How can you know if this has never happened to you? This story seems to many a post-apocalyptic tale, written as fiction. Unfortunately for you, it's a horrifying reality. Many of your countrymen will be more than happy to bend the knee, some of them even becoming a willing component of the tyrannical establishment. You hear murmurs of an uprising but these are only rumors, spoken of softly so as not to garner the attention of the always watching Nazi eye. Then, one day your number is called and you're loaded onto a cattle-car, destined to slave away for your enemy, assisting in the production of murderous machine. Your name is John Pugliese, and at 14 years old your mind is already made up. You must escape.
What do you remember about your parents and growing up?
JP: My mother passed away when I was 6 years old. My father moved away from France after WWII and lived in DC and I lived in Maryland. He had a little bit of money when he came, and opened a business. The people who had money in France would buy diamonds and gold because you couldn’t put your money in the banks. My father did that as well bringing a lot of gold pieces which made up our funds. My father passed away when he was 77 years old on Friday the 13th. He died one day before I turned 50 years old. I remember he remarried an Italian who had lived in Paris and she was a great cook. He opened a shop and continued as a hairstylist. My grandmother was wonderful and helped raise me. I had been in boarding school until the war started in 1940 and after that, I lived with my grandmother. My younger sister also went to a boarding school.
Do you remember the feeling of knowing the Germans were coming to France?
JP: It was 1939 and when the Germans came we had to evacuate Paris. The Germans were bombing us and so many people were killed in those bombings. My family had a couple of bicycles and when the Germans caught us they took them from us. My father was a pretty wealthy man before the war but he lost everything when the Germans came. He had been a hair stylist for the movie stars and made more money in one week than most people made in a month. It was a scary time when the Germans came. He taught me his trade and when I came to the United States that was what I did as well. I remember going underground under the buildings where there were caves. The sirens would start blaring and it was a piercing sound. I was 16 years old when this was going on.
When the Germans first called or interviewed you, why did they decide to pick you?
JP: I had 4 or 5 friends that I had gone to school with and none of them were called as volunteers. The Germans would gather names and they would pick a name randomly and I was the unfortunate one. They were picking people to work in their factories that were getting bombed every night. It was their labor force and they would pay you but it was a mandatory job. They called it “recruiting” a labor force to work. If you weren’t chosen you remained working your normal job that you had. My escape was from a German railcar. They gathered all of us “volunteers” up and shipped us out on railcars to work at the labor camps.
I came up with a plan in my head to escape and when the right time came I sprung from the railcar. The Germans shot at me as I jumped and ran from the tracks. They almost hit me. I could hear the bullets whizzing past my head as I ran, but I remember thinking even at the young age of 16 that losing my freedom was worse than being shot and killed. My best friend Robert, he came from a wealthy family and when I joined the French Resistance he knew about it. When I enlisted in the Army he enlisted too because of our friendship. We would see propaganda every day through newspaper and hear it on the radio.
Do you remember any specific times of service?
JP: I was the most scared when the Germans wanted me to work in their factory. They called me to come take a physical and when I walked into the exam room the first thing they said was to drop my pants. I was 16 years old and I thought, "What kind of physical is this (laughs)?" They wanted to see if I was circumcised. If I had been, they would've regarded me as a Jew and I wouldn't be here in front of you today.
Did many of the French soldiers become part of the Resistance ?
JP: When the Germans arrived there was no French Army. They had all disappeared and run away. I guess that’s where the French jokes come from (laughs). When I was fighting with the US Army there was a 1st Division. They were part of the French foreign legion and they were the toughest guys you ever met. The Senegal troops were all black and they loved killing the German troops. They would cut their ears off and make necklaces out of them. The Free French Army had men from Senegal and when they went into combat they acted like crazy men.
What did your father think of you being part of the Resistance ?
JP: My father wasn’t too happy when I joined the French Resistance. I didn’t correspond with him which caused him to worry. It was more difficult to correspond in those days and I couldn’t think about home. I needed to stay focused and any communication could be caught by the Germans and traced back to my location.
What was the training like for the French Resistance?
JP: During the beginning of the training cycle, we were all standing in a circle and they began giving us lectures. One of the main instructors had a grenade and removed the clip from the grenade to show us all about the grenade. We knew all about these explosives and how the pin worked. He was showing us an example of removing the pin and he dropped the grenade and everyone just ran (laughs). We all turned to look at him and he was just standing there laughing because it wasn’t a real grenade. He just wanted to see how we reacted. The training for the resistance was tough but we were all in shape.
When I left the Army after the war I joined a Judo club and became a competitor in Judo. I came into this country and taught some self-defense classes. I love Judo better than any other sport because in Judo even if the guy is bigger you can get him off balance and defeat him. We had a punching bag that we used and I could do a flip in the air and hit the bag with both of my feet. You can kill a man with those kinds of moves. The first thing you do when you learn Judo is how to fall. You must learn how to fall correctly. When I first came to this country they didn’t have any type of Judo clubs. I helped start that in my area.
When you served in the Resistance were you afraid of being caught?
JP: I was scared of being caught by the Germans of course. I remember being on the Metro in Paris and a French Resistance fighter threw an explosive device at a German officer that had been standing there. The bomb exploded in the station and everybody around me was either wounded or dead. Nothing touched me. I ran away and would have probably won the 100-yard dash that day. A few days later I returned to the place where the bomb had exploded and looked at the wall where I had been standing. It was full of holes from the shrapnel but nothing had touched me. War is a messy, dangerous thing. You're talking about humans killing humans and finding the most effective way to do it. That's never going to be completely clean.
Did the French Resistance men you were with go after French people that were collaborating with the Germans?
JP: We didn’t go after French people that were collaborating with Germans during the war, but after the liberation we certainly did. We hated them for helping the Germans. There was one time in France the SS went into a church where all the women and children were. There were no men there. The SS burned the church down with all of them inside and they nailed one girl to the doors of the church. I remember during the German occupation that I had two friends who were twins, and they were celebrating their birthday. There were about 18 kids there and during the German occupation, you never brought a group together because it was too dangerous. When the Germans saw all the kids together they put them up against the wall and shot them with a machine gun. They all fell on the ground covered in blood. One of the twins, who hadn't been shot, heard his brother moaning because he was still barely alive. The Germans came over when they heard the moaning but the twin who hadn't been hit acted as if he were dead. The Germans kicked the dead teenager's head and they shot him. The other twin who hadn't been shot played dead and lived to tell the story.
Did you stay underground the entire time?
JP: I would go out at night with the rest of the resistance fighters. I was the youngest guy there and they kept me on guard most of the time. If any Germans came I was supposed to shoot them. We came out at night time and would go on missions. We would patrol through fields at night and put the cattle in front of us as we walked. The cattle would step on the mine and blow up which kept us safe. When I came into this country people would say to me, “You fought for France?” I would tell them, "Not really. I fought for the world to be saved from an evil man." I never felt like I was fighting just for France.
Did you know in advance that the invasion of Normandy was coming?
JP: We knew that the invasion of Normandy was coming. We were getting news from the Free French. At that time, I was in the French Resistance and I was very glad they were landing. We had two OSS in my Resistance group and those guys were the CIA of World War II. We had a network to save the Jewish people from German capture, and we sent them to Spain.
Do you remember what American unit you were with at Metz?
JP: I was with the 3rd US Army/20th Corps. They had a special insignia but I didn’t have it on my uniform. When I was in the American's Ranger School, I was trained to shoot heavy weapons including the bazooka and flamethrower. The Germans were a very strong enemy and incredibly organized. It took the entire world to beat them. When the Normandy invasion happened, the best German troops were actually serving in Russia. If they had not been in Russia we may not have been able to land at Normandy. When Hitler took his place over the nation, he brainwashed all the younger people. The people that were over 40 years old that didn’t do as he commanded were murdered. I was shot at many times in battle. When I was in the battle of Metz I stood shoulder to shoulder with American GI’s. We were dressed exactly the same with fishnet on the helmets and corresponding uniforms. When Patton wanted us in his Army our gear became all American gear. The only exception for this was when I was transferred to the French Occupation Army.
What do you remember about the Battle of Metz?
JP: I remember the fear so clearly at the Battle of Metz, because as far as the eye could see were dead bodies. There were holes that were full of dead Germans as well. It was constant carnage everywhere you turned and I remember just being glad to be alive at the end of the battle. I was proud to fight alongside the U.S. Army. I entered Germany with the first U.S. troops. We liberated a Russian prison camp while we were there. I saw the Jews there and they were just skin and bones. When you have been fighting in war you aren’t surprised by the things that you see. I knew about the extermination camps and how the Jews had been treated.
How long did it take before you immigrated over to the US ?
JP: I came over to America in September of 1947 after I was discharged from the Army. When I first came here to the states, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay. I landed in New York but ultimately ended up in Washington, DC. I didn’t really know what I was going to do for work, but then I fell in love. I married an American girl from New York. Her father was an Irishman and every other word was a curse word (laughs). He just couldn’t speak without cussing. My wife’s name was Joan and she was an Irish Catholic. When I proposed to her I had to go and meet her in Georgetown. They sent me to a French place because I couldn’t speak very good English and they gave me the second degree (laughs). We had a big wedding and were married for over 50 years. She passed away 11 years ago from lung cancer. The first twenty five years of marriage were perfect but when she got sick it was hard. She was as good of a cook as Julia Child and could make any type of food.
When you got out of the military what were you feeling ?
JP: I was happy to be out of the military when I was discharged. I'd done my time. I was in the occupation Army in France when I got out, and they had asked me to re-enlist but I turned it down. They asked me the same thing here in America when I arrived off the ship. In those days, when you landed here, the government wasn't responsible for you for two years. You could not get into any social program to get any type of assistance. I’m very proud I fought in the war though. I wanted to get out of the occupation and the Germans were very nasty soldiers. We had curfew every night and they treated us like animals. I hated them at the time because they were occupying my beautiful country. As I got older, I realized I didn’t hate the Germans civilians but I hated their leader. They were not inherently evil people, but they had brainwashed all the young citizens. They had taken all the guns and the only ones who had them were police and the military. The Nazis were an extremely evil people group.
What did you do professionally in the U.S. after the war?
JP: I worked for the U.S. Navy for 44 years as a contractor and worked security for them. I have an accent that made it hard for anyone to suspect me doing the type of work that I did. I worked in Northern Virginia mainly for them and traveled back and forth to the Pentagon. I had Secret Service Clearance with that job.
What were the cultural differences for you with France being very different than America?
JP: When I first came to America I wasn’t too sure I liked the culture. I had been raised in France with great food and when I arrived in New York the food was terrible. There were some things that were hard to get used to coming from France. Nobody drank wine when I arrived here in this country 70 years ago but now that has changed, thankfully (laughs). I have mixed emotions about France in the modern times. They have become more liberal. I have friends who live there and they aren’t miserable. They have a pretty good life. There doesn’t seem to be too many problems over there as far as finding work. The best way to fight poverty in any culture is to work.
How do you feel about America in modern times?
JP: When I first came to this country no one complained, but now I feel like we live in a land of complainers. That's just how I feel. Most of the young kids today want our borders open and for our country to just allow anyone in. I’m against open borders. When I first arrived I had to go through the visa program and all those measures in order to acquire citizenship. I came here somewhat easily but that was because I had served in the war. I’m not happy with what's going on in this country today. We live in a very divided nation right now. It’s terrible. I believe in what Kennedy said, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” I’m a firm believer that you don’t ask your country to do things for you, but you ask how to serve your country.
What do we need to do to be a better country?
JP: We need to become more united and not succumb to division. I think we have too many people on welfare. You must come here to this country and apply to do it the right way. Don’t get on welfare and act like a leech when you get here. Instead, get a job and work hard. We have so many people that come over here and just get on welfare and don’t want to work. When I married my wife I became more mature and I realized that I was more conservative than I thought. The United States was built on hard work, and in order to keep our freedoms we have to be willing to stay with that approach.
It's hard for many to imagine the thought of being trapped in a world where the only escape is to fight. Still, John Pugliese lived that life not even 85 years ago. The world was at a crux where we could've just as easily dissolved into a society governed by utter and complete evil. When John chose to spring from that railcar as a young teenager, he had no idea those residual choices are what saved the Allied forces. Maybe you can't imagine yourself in Pugliese's world, but challenge yourself for a minute to do so. His sacrifices just may have bought you the time to do that. Americans tend to see things in the eyes of Americana but the simple fact is many nations were saved from terror by the choices of young men all over the world. That's worth some pause and a moment in thought. This blog is dedicated to all of those freedom fighters out there that didn't necessarily serve under the banner of the United States. Your service is not forgotten. Thank you, John.