Friday’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe — or V-E Day — will be an abstraction for most Americans. Not for Baton Rouge siblings Marie Jorda Jones and Gerard Jorda.
Both were teens in northern France when the war came to their country in 1940. By the time it ended, Marie was engaged to an American. In between, they endured an occupation that turned them into refugees for more than two years.
Jones and Jorda grew up roughly 70 miles northwest of Paris and 40 miles from the border with Belgium. Their father, Antonio Jorda, was a Spanish native who ran a grocery store, and they were among five siblings living in their quiet town of La Fère, France.
Eight months after its invasion of Poland started World War II in Europe, Germany invaded France. The Jordas didn’t hang around.
“People would tell you stories of what they did in World War I. They had to live with Germans, too,” said Jones, who turns 91 next week. “Everybody left. The police department was gone. There was nothing to control the town. … So, we headed for Paris.”
By this time, the French government had requisitioned all private vehicles for military use, including the Jordas’ truck. So, they had to walk. They joined thousands of civilians and retreating French soldiers on the road.
“There were always airplanes coming over, strafing people and whatnot,” said Jorda, 87. “It was always scary. When we saw an airplane, we had to go in a ditch to get some cover. But there were a lot of people on the road, a lot of people.”
Because of that, their father decided they would sleep during the day and walk at night to avoid the heat, the crowds and German aircraft. In Paris, they boarded a southbound train.
“We didn’t care where we went,” Jones said.
It turned out to be Treignac, a town where facilities had been set up for refugees. Jones remembers the locals not receiving them warmly.
She worked in a machine shop and their father worked on farm, assisted by his young sons. Still, they were away from the Germans, who created a puppet regime for the southern part of the country after France surrendered on July 17, 1940.
Two years later, however, after the Allied invasion of north Africa, German forces moved there to guard against an invasion. After that, Antonio Jorda decided to return to La Fère to re-establish his business. Months later, his family joined him.
“Some of the Germans were pretty nice,” Jones said. “They had some soldiers who were old. The SS, the young ones raised by Hitler, they were dressed from head to foot in leather, black leather. They’re the ones who used to come in the store, grab a bottle of whatever we had and go out without paying. We didn’t say a word. They would have killed us. The older ones, they were nice.”
Her brother would be stopped by soldiers when he would return from music lessons, and they would make him open his clarinet case to make sure he didn’t have contraband. Because of blackout rules, walking at night was hazardous.
“I got hit by a truck … no lights,” he said. “When it was dark, he couldn’t see you. Sometimes you’d be walking the streets and walk into people because you couldn’t see.”
Jorda, like other able-bodied men and teens, was pressed into service to repair bomb damage to railroad tracks. The tracks would usually be repaired within three days, he said.
Although it was forbidden, French civilians listened to Radio London to keep track of the war. Allied forces landed in France on June 6, 1944, and it took less than three months for La Fère to be liberated. There wasn’t much fighting around the town. The Germans destroyed bridges as they retreated, and when the U.S. 9th Army arrived, the Corps of Engineers first built a foot bridge that civilians immediately started using.
This wasn’t the end of wartime austerity, but it was a start.
“I got me a big bag of tomatoes, some peaches, and said, ‘Mama, when I come back I’m going to bring you some coffee,”’ Jones recalled. “We hadn’t had coffee in over three years. No coffee. When I came back, I had all kinds of stuff. When you’d give them anything they hadn’t had — fresh peaches and tomatoes — you could get anything. They’d give you all their rations. That was wonderful. They didn’t like the stuff, but we did.”
She also came to like one of the soldiers, and Gerard Jorda played a role in introducing them.
After the Germans left, Jorda worked at a nearby airbase the Americans set up and met a mechanic, James Jones. He brought him to their home, where he met Marie.
By the time Jorda was moved to another base, they’d fallen in love. After James Jones was sent home following the war, he returned to France and they married, then settled in his hometown, Anniston, Alabama. James Jones took a job with Delta Tanks in Baton Rouge, and Gerard moved here in 1951. He became a naturalized citizen in 1955, attended LSU and became a French and Spanish teacher in local schools until retiring in 1991.
James Jones died in 1969.