Tuesday, May 6, 2014

America's Story (part 14) - I Was a Male War Bride - the real story

IMDB.com/I Was a Male War Bride

One day rummaging through the local thrift store, I picked up an old copy of The 30th Anniversary Reader's Digest Reader (1953).  Perusing its table of contents, this one story caught my attention -

I Was a Male War Bride
condensed from The Baltimore Sunday Sun, September 28, 1947
Henri Rochard.

Many years ago on the late show, I had seen a movie of that same title, but I didn't know it was based on the autobiography of Henri Rochard.
[reference: Henri Rochard :: Traveling Culture - Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century]

As we are passing another anniversary of VE Day - Victory in Europe, May 8, 1945, marking the beginning of the end of World War Two - let us take a closer look at one of its heroes, this male war bride and the story behind this movie.


The Movie

I Was a Male War Bride (1949) can be classified as a screwball comedy.  Its director Howard Hawks made this genre - the rapid fire dialog, the slapstick comedy of antagonism between a man and a woman who cannot admit their feelings for each other, where in the end love eventually triumphs.  Such is the case in this summary -

In post-World War II Germany, French Army Captain Henri Rochard  (Cary Grant) and American Lieutenant Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan)  have a history of hating each other.  And their final assignment together portents to be the mother of all misadventures, most at Captain Rochard's expense.  But before their mission is over, they fall in love, marry quickly, then face endless red tape when Rochard tries to immigrate to the U.S. as Lieutenant Gates'  male war bride.

The trailer gives a taste of the high jinks that ensure from the duo's volatile chemistry:

Turner Classic Movies has a good summary here - I Was a Male War Bride


The real story

Then I read the condensed story about the real Henri Rochard

* His name was not Henri Rochard.

Henri Rochard was his pen name.  His real name was Roger Henri Charlier

* He was not a French Army Captain, but a Belgian Army Major

The real Henri Rochard was a native of Antwerp, Belgium.  A broadly educated man, he had planned to be a college professor. But he was called into service  as  an anti-aircraft artillery officer when the Axis Powers invaded the Low Countries.  He served until the surrender of ex-King Leopold, then joined the underground resistance.

* He was a POW

Major Rochard's work for the Allies landed him in German prison camps for five months. But since then, among many honors, he got a commission in the army after the liberation of Belgium and a commendation from SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force). 

* He was a representative at the German War Crimes Trials

Because of his ability to speak several languages, the real Henri Rochard served as a liaison officer for the Belgian Government at the Nuremberg and Dachau War Crimes trials.  For his service there, he got a special commendation by President Truman.

* His bride was an American Army nurse

While at the war crimes trials, the real Henri Rochard was accidentally hit by a car, which landed him in a U.S. Army hospital.  It was there he met Catherine - a U.S. Army nurse.  Upon release from the hospital, Major Rochard was discharged from the Belgian Army and returned to Nuremberg as a civilian employee of the U.S. War Department.  But Cupid had struck and Catherine and Henri became engaged. They had planned to get married and leave for the United States as soon as possible.
[references:  I Was a Male War BrideThe Baltimore Sunday Sun, September 28, 1947 and Henri Rochard]

* Up to this point, the real Henri Rochard is so much different than the movie.  Right?

 But there is nothing like government red tape that creates a real life screwball comedy.

Much of the movie did get the flavor the confusion, the frustration, the problems, the waiting, that are stranger than fiction.  (Though the real Henri Rochard did not dress in drag like Cary Grant.)

First, Henri needed permission from the U.S. Army Headquarters to marry Catherine, like they were her father, only more demanding with paperwork.  This took a few months.  Then came the inquiries at the nearest U.S. Consulate regarding his conditions to enter the country.  That took another four months to get an answer.  It was then Henri learned he could be admitted to the U.S. under Public Law 271 - 1945 War Brides Act.

This was when the real trouble began.

The bureaucracy could not deal with a male spouse of a female Army officer.  But through the muck, Henri Rochard wrote -

A long war of attrition with Army regulations, a change of sex - and finally victory and the U.S.A at last.

And in the end the real Henri Rochard - Dr. Roger Henri Charlier - did become an American citizen - a writer, speaker, international consultant.

Movie Remake?

I would like to hear more of the real Henri Rochard - the multilingual scholar, the Belgian anti-aircraft officer making a last stand against Hitler, the underground resistance fighter, the POW, the liaison and representative at the World War Two war crimes trials.  He seems most interesting.

As for government red tape, haven't many of us have shared some of these same frustrations of dealing with a government bureaucracy or large institution that is too big too fail?  (That could be a subject for another blog.)

Some things never change.

And it is heroes and immigrants like Henri Rochard that are part of the America's  Story.



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