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Instructor Herbert Cain introduces his French students to their new trainer. (AFHRA)

French Lessons

With their own country occupied by Germany, French air cadets came to Alabama to learn to fly. Vive la Dixie!

The U.S. Army had experience training foreign air cadets. It had just concluded a two-year program in which 4,000 British cadets were sent to U.S. bases for flight training. But the British had provided some of their own instructors. The French, on the other hand, had no instructor pilots to spare. Many were stuck in France or languishing in German POW camps.

By early 1943, the search was on for instructors who could communicate with the French.

That January, my father graduated from Craig Field as an Army Air Forces fighter pilot. Hoping to use his new skills overseas, he was soon disappointed. “They wrote me asking if I would be interested in teaching basic training to Frenchmen,” he recalls. His heritage had worked against him: He was a Louisiana Cajun, or Acadian—a descendant of French Canadians who had fled British rule 250 years ago. French was my father’s first language, and in the 1940s, when visiting his parents in southwest Louisiana, he still spoke mainly French.

“I wrote back and politely said no, I would rather take a combat assignment,” he recalls. “I got a second letter that was no longer a question but an assignment.”

Other pilots who had indicated a knowledge of French on Army personnel records received similar “invitations.” Besides those of Cajun descent—men with names like Pellerin, Hebert, and Gautreaux—the Army recruited college French majors and the sons of wealthy families who had learned French from their nannies or during summers in Europe. Some instructors recruited for the effort spoke little or no French at all. Nineteen-year-old flight instructor Jack Wishnick saw a recruiting notice at a Greenville, Mississippi base. He had taken two years of high school French and failed the second year. But he was keen on transferring to Montgomery to be near a woman there. He managed to pass the language test by reciting one French sentence he had memorized.

“When the first group [of students] arrived, I finally had to tell my commanding officer I didn’t speak French,” says Wishnick. “He said that in my first group he would give me students who knew some English. Then he grabbed me by the neck and told me, ‘By the end of 10 weeks, you better be fluent in French and they better be fluent in flying. Or you’ll be doing night flying the rest of the war.’ ”

Ed Vorrier was stuck with instructor duty because the military thought his name sounded French. He protested that he was of German-Irish descent and spoke no French, but to no avail. He eventually learned French on the job. Some air fields offered French courses for the U.S. instructors, though the instructors I interviewed years later don’t recall them.

The first detachment of French air cadets, about 100 enlisted men and officers, left Africa and sailed for the States on June 14, 1943. On arrival, a train took them to Craig Field for processing.

Years later, I asked one of that first group, René Levêque, what he thought of Alabama.

“Alabama? Alabama? What did I care about Alabama? We were in America!”

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