A lucky drive through WWII France

Published: Sunday, Feb. 22 2009 12:40 a.m. MST

Perhaps some World War II comedies like "McHale's Navy" and "Hogan's Heroes" aren't so farfetched after all.

A war story from more than 64 years ago told by a Utah veteran is steeped in almost comical ignorance and just plain luck, and serves as a previously unwritten footnote to the official end-of-the-war history.

Art Lifferth, 86, of Bountiful, who served in the 98th Squadron of the 440th Troop Carrier Group in Europe during World War II, recently pulled out his journal to share his experiences during the last months of the war.

His story and others like it are outside the accepted war histories. But Lifferth's tale, probably impossible to verify now more than six decades later, adds mystique to what is one of the most romantic events of World War II — the liberation of Paris.

A corporal in the U.S. Army Air Force, Lifferth helped staff cargo planes that delivered supplies to troops.

One day, probably Aug. 24, 1944, the plane made a typical landing at an airport in Europe, he said.

Lifferth had helped unload a jeep when his commanding officer suddenly yelled for him and Lt. Walter L. Myers to drive the vehicle southwestward to Le Mans to rejoin their division because the plane had to get airborne and there wasn't time to reload the vehicle. "They wanted to quickly get all of the planes out," he said."

What the two men didn't know was that "they had landed us in the wrong spot," Lifferth said. They were actually behind German lines at the Reims Airport in France. Military headquarters had made a serious mistake.

"We didn't know that we were behind enemy lines," he said. "I guess our commander thought we were expendable."

Lifferth and Myers had a map but no weapons. Checking the map, they realized they could save time by taking a shorter route to Le Mans through Paris. Le Mans is about 90 miles southwest of Paris. (Le Mans had been taken by allied forces just days earlier on Aug. 8.)

"We had a good time sightseeing," Lifferth said.

The two were wearing their Eisenhower jackets, but not their dress uniforms.

When they drove through Paris, residents frequently cheered them and acted like they were heroes, Lifferth said. But they still didn't realize the potential dangers. Fortunately, he said, they encountered no German military.

"We didn't know the city had not been formally liberated yet," Lifferth said.

About eight miles outside Paris, he said, he and Myers were shocked to see a wide line of tanks thundering toward them. They were soon relieved when they saw U.S. stars on the metal behemoths. Their jeep ended up stopping directly in front of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and the Third Army.

"He couldn't believe that two Air Force soldiers in a noncombat jeep had upstaged him in Paris," Lifferth said.

"All he seemed to do was know how to swear and he used every profane word in the military dictionary," he recalled. Lifferth said the general chewed him and Myers out for being behind enemy lines with no weapons and no good reason for being there. "He was very crude."

"We drove away while he was still talking, with a smile and a salute," Lifferth said.

In the ensuing days, newspapers around the world reported that Patton and his men were the first Americans in Paris after the long German siege that started in June of 1940. But Lifferth said he and Myers knew better.

The official Paris liberation celebration was Aug. 25, 1944.

American novelist Ernest Hemingway, a short story writer and journalist in the war, claimed that he "liberated" Paris by entering the city ahead of the Allied forces, taking over some of the bars at Paris' largest hotels, letting champagne flow freely and thus liberating the residents.

E-MAIL: lynn@desnews.com

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