Claude Chauvigné 🎤 - Interview (vidéo et texte)
Transcript Number 031Interview of Claude Chauvigne
INTERVIEWER: Mr. Chauvigne would you please give us your full name and address.
CHAUVIGNE: My name is Claude Chauvigne and I live on 40 Deer Mountain Road, Pittsboro, North Carolina. The zip code is 27312.
INTERVIEWER: And give us your date of birth please, Mr. Chauvigne.
CHAUVIGNE: I was born the 6th of June 1929.
INTERVIEWER: Now you were a French national at the time of World War II.
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, I was a little kid. When the war broke out, I was 10 years old.
INTERVIEWER: And where were you living?
CHAUVIGNE: I was living in Coulombiers, a very, very small village south of Poitiers, the capital of Poitou in southwestern France.
INTERVIEWER: And whom were you living with?
CHAUVIGNE: I was living with my brother at my grandmother's house.
INTERVIEWER: And where were your parents at this time?
CHAUVIGNE: My parents worked in Africa and we came back to France in 1938 or beginning '39 and we remained, the two of us, my brother and I, with my grandmother for the whole war.
INTERVIEWER: And were you in school at this time?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, I was first in grade school and then very shortly after, I went to the Lycee, the high school in Poitiers and that's where I spent five years. Almost every weekend, we would go visit my grandmother.
INTERVIEWER: Why were your parents in Africa?
CHAUVIGNE: Well my father was working in mining and at the end of '38 I think, there was an epidemic of some sickness, I forgot which one and then my mother took us to France. But then, later on, the war broke out and my parents intended to have us come back and join them, but the timing was not very good and in 1940, our ship sunk, burned in the harbor of Bordeaux and so we remained in France with my grandmother all that time.
INTERVIEWER: Burned by whom?
CHAUVIGNE: The Germans, a plane I suppose.
INTERVIEWER: Do you recall the time when the war started?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, very well. I recall very well. My aunt took us, my brother and I, in the field behind their house to tell us that the war had broken out and that our uncle was going to join an artillery outfit on the eastern border of France and Germany. I remember that very, very well.
INTERVIEWER: When was this? What date are we talking about?
CHAUVIGNE: Well that was in September 1939, the 2nd or the 3rd of September.
INTERVIEWER: So what happened then?
CHAUVIGNE: Well, very shortly after, a flood of refugees from a small village on the border of Germany and France, the village was Narcay, came to our village and they were displaced persons and they came to our village and we lodged them wherever we could in barns, in houses, in warehouses, just name it. Remember our village was a very small village, 250-300 people at most. And so we managed to accommodate all these people in our village and remember also many came with their cattle and I remember that we had to go to the station and milk the cows which had not been milked for two or three days. So you can imagine the poor things. I remember that very, very well.
INTERVIEWER: This was immediately after the Germans invaded Poland?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, you're right, you're right.
INTERVIEWER: In September of 1939.
INTERVIEWER: And what happened between September of 1939 and the time that the Germans invaded France, your own country, which was in May of 1940.
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, by the way, the refugees spoke a German dialect. So in the beginning, it was kind of a shock, you know. And I remember the Christmas mass for instance, they said that in German, but we managed somehow. And then, as you know, nothing much happened and suddenly in May '40, that's when the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and northern France. Things began to change then. Very shortly, we had refugees coming from Belgium, some from Holland, but mostly from Belgium and northern France, coming down.
At that time, I remember very, very well we had communions and we were going to a retreat, I don't know maybe 30 kids or so at most. We were walking on the main road. You see, Coulombiers, the village, is a stride. The men rode between Poitiers and La Rochelle on the coast. Today Coulombiers is bypassed by a highway, but in that time, that was your only road, a small road. And I remember very well going on a retreat walking, marching on that road and the refugees coming in and pretty soon, the refugees became a flood really.
INTERVIEWER: From what country were these refugees?
CHAUVIGNE: They were from northern France, Belgium. You know when we have a hurricane here, you see the bottlenecks on the highway. That's nothing, really nothing. This was pitiful because many of them, there were at the beginning a few cars. Then a few trucks. Then pretty soon those cars and trucks had been requisitioned by the French Army and so they came whichever way they could, most of them walking. Even so, an old man was pushing a wheelbarrow in which his own wife was more or less sitting. Where he came from, I have no idea. But we had thousands of these people, thousands and thousands, in wheelbarrows, carts, pulling baby carriage, just name it. It was like, I mean I don't know how to express it.
INTERVIEWER: Where were they going to?
CHAUVIGNE: Hah, that's a good question. They were going south. I don't know where they were going because they would come to the ocean or the border of Spain and then they would have to stop which eventually they did. Later on, they came back up.
INTERVIEWER: Now you didn't see any signs of the actual war during this time because you say you were pretty far removed from it.
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, one day a German airplane came over that crowd and all hell broke loose. You should have seen that. Everyone just scattered, you know, wherever they could. Some people remained in the middle of the road. I forget now if the plane shot or not, I forget, but I know it was mad crowd going everywhere entering houses, spilling in the orchards and fields, so this I remember, oh Ya.
Also at the same time, the route of the French Army, that was pitiful. They camped out at night wherever they could and in some cases, abandoned the equipment and just left. The next morning, you didn't know where they were, but all the equipment was still there. One of the saddest things I can remember is a large group of black troops, French African troops with equipment from World War I, I suppose, going up to the north, I don't know where they were going, and so you had the refugees coming down south and then with lots of soldiers mingled with the refugees and then you had those poor guys going up, I don't know where they were going. For two weeks at least, it was a pitiful sight. The noise, that's what I remember.
Years, years later, I was in a tropical forest and I remember one night hearing ants, can you believe it? Billions of ants going through the encampment, which was about the same noise. There was no shouting, yelling, anything, just the constant noise like those ants, you know, creeping. And then one day or one night rather, everything stopped and what woke us all was the calm and we remember, we went to the window, opened the shutters and everyone in the village looked. There was no one on the road.
INTERVIEWER: This was the first time that the flood of refugees had stopped?
INTERVIEWER: Since the outbreak of the war or shortly before the outbreak of the war?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, well that was in 1940, you see, 1940 during the route and during the exodus and what had happened is that the Germans had just cut off the line north of us and a day or so, no, not even a day, I suppose the same day, I don't remember now, the Germans came in.
We saw the first Germans and the first German that I saw, one morning got out of the house to go to the house outside, and I was going out, I saw something on the bridge and I looked and there was a soldier there. And I looked and it was not the French, I looked very carefully and I went through the vineyard to look, it was a German policeman I suppose and he was standing all by himself. His motorcycle was right beside him and he went by himself. He had a gun across his chest and he was there waiting. It was frightening in a way.
INTERVIEWER: That's the first time you had seen the enemy?
CHAUVIGNE: Exactly, the first time, and then perhaps an hour or two later that we heard a noise and an armored car came down the road. This man had a disk in his hand, red and white, and he was directing the traffic. And they came of course going down south, they didn't even stop in the village. They just went on and they went on and they went on and for several days and later on, more infantry came and even wagons came also.
INTERVIEWER: Your village was a farming village?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, it was a farming village, very small.
INTERVIEWER: So it had no strategic value for the Germans?
CHAUVIGNE: No, no not at all, absolutely not. Except that it was on the road to La Rochelle and they were going to La Rochelle.
INTERVIEWER: What is in La Rochelle?
CHAUVIGNE: It's a big harbor on the coast. Later on it would become a U-boat base.
INTERVIEWER: So that's what they were heading for?
CHAUVIGNE: Well they were heading for there. Others were heading for Bordeaux, which is a large, large city in southwestern France I suppose.
INTERVIEWER: On the coast of the Mediterranean.
CHAUVIGNE: No, on the Atlantic coast.
INTERVIEWER: And that, of course, had strategic value.
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, that's right.
INTERVIEWER: And you saw the soldiers streaming south through your village. Any soldiers billeted in your village?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes because pretty soon, they had to stop of course and pretty soon they came and settled for a night or two, the officers in the houses and the soldiers in the fields behind the houses or wherever they could find and they were there for some time.
INTERVIEWER: Did any soldiers occupy your grandmother's house where you were living?
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, we had two noncom NCO who came to the house and they were very, very polite and there was no trouble at all with them.
INTERVIEWER: And they would sleep over in your house?
INTERVIEWER: Did your grandmother have to feed them?
CHAUVIGNE: No, no, no, they had their own, you know, what do you call it? Kitchen, they had their own kitchen.
INTERVIEWER: So they just slept over?
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, they slept over. Sometime they stayed for a couple of days, sometimes more. Then they went on. And so this was going on on-and-off for about perhaps two to three months, that's all.
INTERVIEWER: How did your grandmother feel about this?
CHAUVIGNE: Poor grandmother, she was very brave for one thing. She had gone through World War I already and lost family then and she was very brave and she must have been terribly worried with the two kids you know, my brother and I, in charge and trying to keep them from getting into any mischief. But you see kids are interested. We were interested in looking around what was happening. Poor grandmother. Nothing she could do about it.
INTERVIEWER: Did you continue to go to school during the German occupation?
CHAUVIGNE: Well Ya. Then in September, both my brother and I....
INTERVIEWER: What year?
CHAUVIGNE: 1940, my brother and I went to the Lycee, the high school in Poitiers, and we were borders there. That is, we lived in the Lycee proper. We had our classes, but also we had our dorms and cafeteria and so on, we lived there. So we went through five [CN1]years of Lycee.
It was an interesting situation for us in many ways. For instance, in our classroom, the study hall, we had a large map of the world and let me tell you, we learned geography then because we knew...we had the newspapers, German, doesn't matter and we had traced the German Army in Russia, in Africa and pretty soon, later on in the Pacific too. That's where we learned geography and we were fascinated by the words, you know, that we met all the time, whether Rangoon or whatever name. So we learned geography and to this day, I think I can draw a map of the world pretty well because we all learned it this way.
INTERVIEWER: Was your village part of Vichy, France?
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, no, no, excuse me, it was not. It was occupied France until November '42 when the Germans finally swept over the other part of France. So at that time, everything became Vichy, France, except the northeast which remain different, how should I say, a different country under German rule.
INTERVIEWER: Besides these two German soldiers that occupied your house, did you have any other experiences with the German soldiers?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes indeed, not bad I must say. We were rather sheltered where we were. Nothing big happened because when the Russian, the Russian front opened, the invasion on that Sunday, June 21, 1941, then all the soldiers left to go to Russia. And so what remained were not front line soldiers and also the pro-German Vichy whatever you can call them, troops you know...
CHAUVIGNE: Collaborators, Ya, they remained. When we were in Lycee, very quickly became hospital, R&R type of hospital. We had many German soldiers there. Half of it was the school and half of it was the hospital. It's a large quadrangle, big building built in 1610 and heavy masonry and the Germans were in one part. We children, students in high school, went over practically every day to talk to those German soldiers, especially when they were helping us with our translation. We were learning German at the time. So there were no problems. Sometimes they would give us some cookies or oranges, I remember. We had never seen an orange before.
INTERVIEWER: So the Germans treated the civilians of your village not badly?
CHAUVIGNE: Well in Poitiers, in a village there was no one there, but in Poitiers, where we were in school, then we had contact with them. We could see them every day on the grounds or whatever.
INTERVIEWER: It didn't interfere with the civilian activities, the merchants, the ....
CHAUVIGNE: Well it did too. In the countryside, they requisitioned, they requisitioned the cattle, the wheat, milk, butter, Ya.
INTERVIEWER: From the civilian population?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, yes. In the city, it was a little bit different because they didn't have really much to requisition there. They just occupied the city, kept law and order and that's about it.
INTERVIEWER: And the Germans for the most part left in June of 1941. They ceased to occupy your area?
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, more or less. But you see in the Lycee, in the high school where I was, we had them until a long time. As I said, until things began to turn really badly in Russia.
INTERVIEWER: Then what happened?
CHAUVIGNE: They left and we were more or less under the Vichy people. You know, for instance, I'll tell you something interesting. Once in a while, the kids were gathered to participate in some activity or the other. For instance, this may surprise you, we didn't have any insecticide to put on the potatoes and so all the kids were gathered, all the schools in Poitiers and we were taken by trucks to the field and there, picked up the beetles and if you had a can full of beetles, then you gave it to the authority, they would burn them, but they would give us some vitamins cookies, and so we did that several times, things like that.
INTERVIEWER: All right, now during this period of the Nazi occupation, did you ever see any signs of battle or hear any airplanes?
CHAUVIGNE: Oh Ya, oh Ya, well once the U.S. got into the war, then we could see large fleets of airplanes, B24s and so on, going over bombing someplace. This we could see. We also had once in a while, we had airplanes in groups of two or three, sometimes single, going over scouting or shooting up convoys. I'll tell you something, twice a month, my brother and I, like many French did, had to join an organization, the Youth of (Henri?) Petain, not Hitler, but...
INTERVIEWER: Petain was the head of the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
CHAUVIGNE: That's right. The reason why we joined is because we got free passes on the train and so we could go to visit my grandmother on weekends and there get some more food because we didn't have much food in high school. I ate rutabaga. To this day, I don't want to look at rutabaga anymore.
So we went to my grandmother and I remember one day, to respond to your questions about activity, the train, the distance between Poitiers and Coulombiers is only 18 kilometers, 11-12 miles, not very much. It took the train about 30-40 minutes to run through that. In front of the train, there was a flat car with sandbags on it and people there looking that the rail had not been disturbed or something. Anyway, I remember well one day, the train stopped someplace on the line, it was going very slowly, stopped and a loud speaker told us "Get out". Boy did we scramble. We heard the plane coming over and there was one plane, oh what do they call it, you know two tailed plane and it came over...
CHAUVIGNE: American plane and they must have seen all those kids scrambling out in the field, so they went over, and then kept on going, didn't do anything. All the time, I knew some trains had been shot up. I knew that. But in this particular day, nothing happened. Obviously the pilot had seen all the kids scrambling out in the field and so he didn't shoot the train. But that was one thing.
But, I think I told you, in our village, we had two or three occurrences of fighting. One, my grandmother had asked me to go and saw some wood for the stove. So I was sawing some wood under the barn like this and had a pile of wood in front of me already sawed and suddenly this terrific noise, I mean tremendous noise, I realized it later on, a plane, I think it was either Lightning or Mosquito I forget now, came way down over the roof of the village and shot a train in the station. The station is about 300-400 yards from my grandmother's house, shot the locomotive. The noise was absolutely terrific and I got so scared, like I dived forward into that pile of wood and scratching my way like an animal. When I got up finally, the plane was gone. When I got up, I could see hundreds and hundreds of little things coming down in the sky and then I realized, those were the empty cases you know, so I ran in the field to get one. I picked one up and I got my fingers really burned at that time.
INTERVIEWER: What nationality was the plane?
CHAUVIGNE: If it was a Lightning, it must have been American. If it was a Mosquito, it must have been English. I forgot what it was. I really forgot now. Tremendous noise.
INTERVIEWER: So you burned your hand on the discharge shell casing from the machine gun on the plane?
CHAUVIGNE: When I picked it up, oh, stupid of me.
INTERVIEWER: Was that the only time you actually saw....
CHAUVIGNE: No, no, another time there were some underground fellows in the railroad station and they were surrounded by some German and Hindus, there were many Hindus with the Germans. They were surrounded there.
INTERVIEWER: Stop a second. Hindu - Indians from India?
INTERVIEWER: Wasn't India a British possession?
CHAUVIGNE: I know, but many Indian soldiers had been captured prisoners in Northern Africa and they were somehow turned into German allies, oh Ya. So they surrounded the station and we could hear and we could see the grenade exploding. I say, it was not very far from my grandmother's house. It didn't last very long. It lasted perhaps, oh, 15 minutes. I forget, I don't know. But anyway, there were casualties on both sides, more on the underground. They were all wiped out, I'm pretty sure.
Another time, my brother and I and my aunt were going to gather some mushrooms and we were on a little hill overlooking the village of Marseilles, which is 4 kilometers away, two and a half miles. And we saw several Lightnings coming over in a convoy. This we saw. It was not very far at all. And later on we learned that one large truck backed up in the church and so the plane came over, came over, came over and did shoot it up and left, but there were many trucks and horses which had been hit and of course killed.
INTERVIEWER: These events occurred during the Nazi occupation?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, it did. And then, that was shortly, you know before or after D-Day. I remember also one morning, we went out and everywhere on the fields were those silvery strips that were used to confuse radar I suppose. And then we had D-Day.
INTERVIEWER: Which was June 6, 1944. What happened between the time the Germans left in June of 1941 and those three years that intervened?
CHAUVIGNE: Well first the Germans began to pull out.
INTERVIEWER: You told us that.
CHAUVIGNE: No, the Germans were in Bordeaux or in the south, they began to pull out to go to the front and then there was a lot of attacks by the underground or by the air, the British. At the village, I would say about one or two kilometers, there was a German tank that was stuck there by, I don't know, I know there was some fighting over there. I know that grandmother and also other people were very worried. They were worried that the Germans would take reprisal against the village, but nothing happened in our village. In other villages, things happened, terrible things happened. But in our village, nothing happened.
INTERVIEWER: You mean terrible things to the civilian population?
CHAUVIGNE: Oh Ya, they shot up many, burned many, oh Ya. Like Oradour-sur-Glane, it's only 50 kilometers away where the Germans tanks burned several hundred people in a church and shot all the men. But in our village? No, this did not happen.
INTERVIEWER: All right. Now you mentioned, we're getting now into the time of the allied invasion, D-Day. Did you have any signs that it was going to happen or did you see it happen or hear it happen?
CHAUVIGNE: Well, yes indeed. The air fleet going over, it was not unusual to see , oh I don't know, several hundred airplanes, take one hour or more just going over, going over.
INTERVIEWER: Allied planes?
CHAUVIGNE: Allied planes.
INTERVIEWER: Heading toward Germany?
CHAUVIGNE: They were going, I don't know, I think they were going toward the southern part of France or Italy. I don't know exactly where they were going. Oh no, Clermont Ferrand, pardon me. I know that one time it was Clermont Ferrand, which is a large industrial city in central France. One day we were helping in the field harvesting. You see all the men were prisoners of war. So everyone was helping in the fields for the harvest and I remember there was...
INTERVIEWER: All the Frenchmen?
CHAUVIGNE: Frenchmen, Ya.
INTERVIEWER: Civilians or soldiers?
CHAUVIGNE: Soldiers, but you see in a small village of 250 or 300 people, when you have 20 or 30 men, prisoners of war, it didn't leave very many to work in the field. So we were working in the field and an airplane came, I don't know what kind of airplane, but it dropped its tank and we saw the tank coming down. Boy did we scatter around.
INTERVIEWER: Gasoline tank?
CHAUVIGNE: Gasoline tank, you know, dropped the tank. The tank bounced up and down and finally some people, a bit more courageous than others, came close. They knew it was not a bomb. And later on, that tank was used as a raft. Some people made a raft out of it. But school had been canceled by that time. We didn't have school any longer.
CHAUVIGNE: Well because every night we had to go to the cellars because of the raids going over Poitiers. Poitiers was bombed.
INTERVIEWER: You mean allied raids?
INTERVIEWER: Over occupied France?
CHAUVIGNE: Exactly, exactly. And so Poitiers, the city where I was in high school, was bombed on June, oh I forgot when. But anyway, I know that a few days later, school children were again gathered to go and clean the rubbles. The station had been leveled completely.
INTERVIEWER: Who ordered you to do that?
CHAUVIGNE: Well because somebody had to clear the...
INTERVIEWER: Oh the civilian population?
CHAUVIGNE: The civilian population, Ya.
INTERVIEWER: Wanted to clean the debris away.
CHAUVIGNE: That's right and know that a number of people had been killed because the bomb of course landed at the station, but also landed outside. That's more or less what happened then. And then, the Communists, underground, came in the village and they took revenge on some people. Now in our village, I don't think that anyone was executed or anything like that, but in the village next to us, a number of collaborators did appear that I know. I know very well.
INTERVIEWER: So there came a time when the free French reoccupied your village sometime after D-Day.
CHAUVIGNE: That's right, oh Ya, oh Ya. That was around August I think.
INTERVIEWER: Of 1944?
CHAUVIGNE: Of 1944, that's right.
INTERVIEWER: Now did you ever see besides the airplanes any allied soldiers?
CHAUVIGNE: (Laughter) no, no, we were all expecting, of course, the Americans to come, see. The Americans are landing, the Americans are coming. And I remember, we had our poor grandmother sew flags, French flag of course. The British flag was something else, let me tell you, with all those stripes, red and blue and so on.
Poor grandmother. When we came to the American flag, (laughter), with the 48 stars, can you imagine sewing 48 stars? My brother and I, we had to have an American flag to put them out when the Americans would come, you see. When my poor grandmother had sewn all this, with the help of my hands, we didn't have the courage to tell her that we would like the stars on the other side too. See, 48 stars, can you imagine. We didn't have the courage to tell her.
But then, we said that we had to have a Russian flag and that was a big uproar in the family because my family, very Catholic, very much against Communism and it was niet all along the line, no, no way. Finally we prevailed. We told them that after all, they had fought along with the Americans and the British and the French and that there were some partisans around the village, I mean Communists, so we better have. So we had our four flags. But it was a problem (laughter).
The next problem ((laughter)) was how to put the flag. The Americans could come only from the north you see, from Normandy wherever so we had to have the American flag, then the British, then the French flag and then the Russian flag. But then my brother and I thought that the Russian deserved a great deal, we should put it before. Anyway, it was quite something in the house.
We put our flags. A storm came by not long after and took care of the flags and tore them up and we never saw any Americans. Never. Only much later. It must have been September and I was, I think I was going back to school pretty soon after cause school started the 1st of October. An American plane, a small plane, crash landed in the field not too far from the village and of course, we had the Americans over and everyone wanted to see the Americans, shake their hand and so on and they were treated...there was one restaurant in town which belonged to a family that were good friends of ours. So they were treated there as you cannot imagine.
Well they were absolutely crying by the end of the meal. You know kids are strange. Things that you remember. I remember there was an Indian in the crew. There were three guys and this Indian could spit as I've never seen anyone spitting so far.
INTERVIEWER: American Indian?
CHAUVIGNE: American Indian, Ya. A few hours later, a truck came by from the coast... I think they had an air base, oh I forgot the name, they came and picked up those three GI's and so we had been liberated officially by America.
INTERVIEWER: Let's go back to D-Day. How far was your village from the Normandy invasion?
CHAUVIGNE: Oh, quite far. I would say 300 kilometers at least and do you know what...but that morning, that morning for some reason that a geologist would explain, the house, the village I suppose, was shaking just like that, trembling. We had, my brother and I, I had my bed here, his bed here and in between, the chimney with a mantelpiece, little knickknacks and everything was falling off. And so, woke me up very, very early, 3:00, 4:00, I forgot, very early, I said, "Bobby, what's happening?" And we went outside and looked if Poitiers, the town, was being bombed, bombarded I should say and nothing was happening there and everything.
So after a while, we listened to the radio as we had faithfully listened to very carefully, listened to it. There was at 5:00 or 5:30, I've forgotten, there was a radio broadcast in Polish and in German, and in German, which I spoke fairly well then, I heard that the allies had landed and next to it came the French and so I rushed to grandmother. "Grandmother, grandmother, the Americans are coming, the Americans are coming!" That's how we learned. And then after that, we heard airplanes all the time, all around.
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, American and English.
INTERVIEWER: But you never really saw American soldiers or British soldiers liberating your village?
CHAUVIGNE: (Laughter) No, never, we were waiting for them, but it was too far. What would they do down there. You see what they did, when they broke through the Normandy front, as you know, they went through toward Paris, but they didn't go down south. There was no point. So we didn't see them.
INTERVIEWER: Were you back at school at this time?
CHAUVIGNE: Then went back to school in October.
INTERVIEWER: What year, '44?
CHAUVIGNE: '44 and I spent a year and we had the first news, direct news of our parents. During the...in 1943 I think it was, one day, there was a note in the mailbox. Father and mother are doing very well. Take courage or something like that. Someone in the resistance was contacted by our parents, I don't know, a friend or what, and dropped that note in the mailbox. Anyway, in October or November, we got the first news of our parents and they got, of course, immediately we sent a message through the Red Cross, we sent a message and that's how we reconnected with our parents in Africa.
INTERVIEWER: They remained in Africa throughout the war?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes. You see working in diamond mining, which was extremely important to pay for, you know, the war and also my father was disabled, very serious liver condition. He was disabled. So he worked in this mining. He was actually the manager of this mining outfit and then in January 31, '45, he suddenly died and so mother came back to France with two new brothers whom we didn't know and then shortly after, we went back to Africa.
INTERVIEWER: In other words, you had two brothers born while you were in France and your parents were in Africa?
CHAUVIGNE: That's right.
INTERVIEWER: Where in Africa were they?
CHAUVIGNE: That was in what is called today the Central African Republic.
INTERVIEWER: And then what was it known as?
CHAUVIGNE: It was Ubangi-Shari.
INTERVIEWER: That was the city, what was the country known as before it changed its name?
CHAUVIGNE: Ubangi-Shari, but it was French Equatorial Africa.
INTERVIEWER: Now are there any incidents that you haven't told me about that you'd like to tell us?
CHAUVIGNE: I'll tell you the saddest, the saddest event for me, for most of us in our classroom, we had a young friend, he was the captain of our soccer team. He was Jewish. And there were very few Jews in our community. But anyway, he was Jewish and one day, I remember so well, we were in class. The door opened, the director of the school was there and beside him were two men and they asked if our friend was here and said "Come along". They took him away and we never saw him again of course. And I must say the mood felt like the Germans and especially from what the French Gestapo, changed very markedly that day. Very somber because we knew something awful must have happened to him or will happen to him. That, I think, shocked us more than seeing a few casualties or you know when we cleaned the rubble, the debris of the bombardment, we found a few corpses.
INTERVIEWER: French or German?
CHAUVIGNE: Civilians, Ya. That was almost accepted, you know, but seeing our friend taken away, oh that was something.
INTERVIEWER: This was a boyhood classmate.
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, a classmate and I remember his desk, he had a football of the team and he picked up the football and gave it to another friend and he left.
INTERVIEWER: Do you remember his name?
CHAUVIGNE: No, I wish I did, but I don't remember. The next thing, of course, was the return of all the French POW. When they came back, another sight too.
INTERVIEWER: When was this?
CHAUVIGNE: Well in '45, in April and May of '45. And then the poor people who came back from the camps, I mean the concentration camps. I remember one train that came. As we were taking the train, my brother and I, to go visit my grandmother, we saw a train of those poor miserable people, awful, awful.
INTERVIEWER: French nationals who were in German concentration camps during the war?
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, ya. But to us, to me, still at this time, the worst was when they took our friend.
INTERVIEWER: Your classmate.
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, our classmate.
INTERVIEWER: This was when the Nazis still occupied your village?
CHAUVIGNE: Ya. It must have been in '43 I suppose, something like that. That's really all I have to say or rather I could talk about many things for hours, but this is the worst. I think on that note, it's enough.
INTERVIEWER: Nothing else in your notes, you're sure, that you don't want to tell me?
CHAUVIGNE: No, no, really no.
INTERVIEWER: And how did you learn about the end of the war?
CHAUVIGNE: Oh my, the end of the war. That was a celebration. I was a boarder still, I was still a boarder in high school, you know.
INTERVIEWER: Oh you didn't live with your grandmother?
CHAUVIGNE: Well, I lived with grandmother during the summer and also on the weekends or on vacations, you know.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, but the other times you were in school. Is this still the Lycee, the high school?
CHAUVIGNE: Exactly, and the end of the war, when it came, big celebration in the school. We were really wild and also the people in the city everywhere, really wild.
CHAUVIGNE: Celebrating, ya.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know where you were at the time?
CHAUVIGNE: We were at school, but even the director, the principal of the school couldn't do very much. All the kids left the school, you know, you went to town to take part in the celebrations.
INTERVIEWER: And did you remain in your village after the war?
CHAUVIGNE: No because shortly after, I went, I had to go to work. So I left school and went to work in mining in Africa.
INTERVIEWER: Your father's old company?
CHAUVIGNE: Yes, that's right, the same company.
INTERVIEWER: He was dead?
CHAUVIGNE: Oh yes.
INTERVIEWER: How long did you remain in Africa?
CHAUVIGNE: Oh I remained there for eight years.
INTERVIEWER: And then?
CHAUVIGNE: Well then I worked for a little while in France and then came to this country. I came here in '56. The day after I arrived here, I signed up for school, college, and went on to college, graduate school and so on and had a career, a wonderful career in teaching.
INTERVIEWER: What did you teach?
CHAUVIGNE: Well I taught mostly French language, French culture and also I taught African geography and I must say, I had 40 some years of wonderful teaching.
INTERVIEWER: Where did you teach, what kind of school?
CHAUVIGNE: Well first I taught one year in Texas, then I taught one year in South Carolina.
INTERVIEWER: High school, grade school?
CHAUVIGNE: No, no, no, university. And then one year in South Carolina and then 30 some years at UNCG in Greensboro, very, very happy years.
INTERVIEWER: Are you a naturalized United States citizen?
CHAUVIGNE: Oh ya, I've been an American citizen now for 40-some years.
INTERVIEWER: What eventually happened to your grandmother?
CHAUVIGNE: Well, grandmother, of course, survived the war. She lived until she was 97. She had never been sick in her life. But toward the end, I visited her about two years before she died and she said, "You know, ma petit, I have lived too long, too long, it's enough now".
INTERVIEWER: She stayed in the same village?
CHAUVIGNE: Oh yes, same village, same house.
INTERVIEWER: Would you mind spelling the names of those cities that you mentioned? (This was done)
CHAUVIGNE: Speaking of Narcay (the village spoken of at the beginning of this interview), another incident by the way. We had a man in the village, in every village in France, you had a man who went around the country road and filled up the potholes and so on, and this man had a little dog (laughter). I remember that, one day, he was a veteran of World War I, and he had some, I don't know, he had been injured in World War I, anyway, that little dog, he would say, "Churchill" and the little dog would stand up like that, "bow wow wow". And he would say "Hitler" and the little dog would become furious (laughter).
INTERVIEWER: That you remember.
CHAUVIGNE: Ya, that's how people treated the whole thing.
INTERVIEWER: All right, if you've told us everything...
CHAUVIGNE: Oh yes, I think that is enough.
INTERVIEWER: Okay, this is going to conclude the interview of Claude Chauvigne who was a French National during World War II. The time is 11:26 on the 12th of June 2000.