As youngsters, they were forbidden from speaking French at school. As adults, those south Louisiana children went on to help win World War II. And Jason Theriot wants to tell their stories.
Theriot, a historian and environmental consultant who grew up in New Iberia, is trying to find Cajun and Creole servicemen or women whose fluency in French came in useful during the war. If families have letters or recordings about that from deceased veterans, he also wants those for a book he’s writing.
“What I’m looking for are those sort of hidden treasures — family-owned videos, probably on a VHS tape or a cassette tape recording that some granddaughter did of her grandpa who’s long-since passed,” Theriot said. “Those are the little jewels I’m looking for.”
His book, the working title of which is “Frenchie: The Story of the French-speaking Cajuns of World War II,” will be published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press. It expands on Theriot's master’s thesis he wrote 12 years ago. The title references the nickname many south Louisiana soldiers were called by their military comrades.
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“This book is going to be focused on … Cajun identity,” said Theriot, 44, who lives in Houston. “The letters that I found years ago and have returned to … these 20-year-old GIs are writing back to their families and friends back home saying, ‘Hey, you won’t believe, but that language I was told was not useful, that French language that was beat down when I was a kid, has become invaluable. And you wouldn’t believe all the wonderful things that have happened to me since I’ve gotten here.”
Aware of the culture of south Louisiana, intelligence and military services recruited French speakers to serve in specialized roles, including being parachuted behind enemy lines to work with the civilian resistance in German-occupied France, Belgium and North Africa.
Theriot interviewed about 150 veterans and highlighted some of their individual stories with a self-published trilogy, “To Honor Our Veterans: An Oral History of World War II Veterans from the Bayou Country.”
Along the way, he interviewed 30 veterans who specifically commented on how their language skills served them well in combat units in French-speaking territories.
“In almost all of those regions, once they were discovered, they were either reassigned to a company headquarters to be a translator for some bigwig, or they were the unofficial translator of their particular unit,” Theriot said. “This was almost across the board.”
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It made a big impact on the Cajun service members because they almost universally had been forbidden from speaking French, the only language they knew, in school. Many of the youngsters were mocked or worse. Theriot said his grandfather was forced to kneel on crushed pecan shells in the corner of the room because he couldn’t ask to go to the bathroom in English.
“There are so many stories like that,” Theriot said. “What does that do to a young person’s psychological makeup?”
Theriot had stopped his research after his thesis, but when he was invited to speak at the Acadian World Congress this summer in New Brunswick, Canada, he talked about these Cajuns in the military. The audiences, he said, were very appreciative.
On his flight home, Theriot said Matt Mick, of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, encouraged him to further explore the topic. Coincidentally, it was two World War II veterans — Sam Broussard and Burt Angelle — who helped start CODOFIL in 1968. The organization, Theriot said, became a catalyst for people to take pride in their French heritage.
Now Theriot wants to record in his book more experiences of these veterans, either in person or from their families, to preserve the stories. He has funding to transcribe recordings but needs to get them done by January. Contact Theriot at (713) 417-3380 or firstname.lastname@example.org.