ABBEVILLE, La. (WVUE) - Growing up in South Louisiana in the early 20th century, many French-speaking Cajun students were forbidden to speak French in school. But when America entered the second world war, all of a sudden, the military learned the value of Cajun French.
As American troops stormed ashore and dropped behind German lines in the invasion of France, one of the many barriers they faced was language, being able to communicate with French villagers and resistance fighters.
“Frenchie was the person who could talk to the French people and get something done,” retired Brigadier General Robert Leblanc said.
Retired Army Brigadier General Robert LeBlanc is one of those Frenchies, Cajun soldiers from South Louisiana who played a crucial role in months of fierce fighting across the French countryside and historian Jason Theriot is writing a book telling their story.
Some of the bilingual Cajun soldiers faced some hardships in the American military.
“There were a few incidences where these Cajuns from South Louisiana, way deep down the Bayous did not even speak English. some of them didn't go to school, or if they did, they had very little education,” Theriot said. “And so here they are in basic training for the first time and they can't even speak the same language.”
For Theriot, it’s a race against time, interviewing as many of the aging veterans as he can find, reading their letters to home, and going through the thousands of oral histories in the library of the World War II museum in New Orleans.
“You had to find out who was the Frenchmen that was involved that could help you,” Leblanc said.
Theriot interviews the retired army general in his Abbeville home. Now 98 years old, LeBlanc explains how he was recruited by the OSS, the Army’s Office of Secret Services, and how he trained with non-Louisiana soldiers who learned their French in college.
“Their opinion when we were training at the camp, that we’re a bunch of nuts,” Leblanc said. “But the minute they got to France they realized we knew more than they did about what’s necessary to do something with French.”
MCNAMARA: LeBlanc was assigned to General Patton’s third army, where he was part of an advance team gathering information for the allied invaders.
“Were Cajuns known as a group, as a cultural group during that time?” Theriot asked.
“No. All they knew was that they were people who knew how to speak French and they were damn glad they knew how to speak French because they didn't know nothing about French,” Leblanc responded.
Theriot also grew up in Abbeville, and he understands the importance of telling this story.
“I think in many ways it, it helped justify their cultural differences that up until that point, they had thought that they were, um, low class citizens,” Theriot said.
MCNAMARA: Nearly four centuries after the Acadians left their native France, the battlefields of World War II proved to be a vital homecoming.
For more information visit Jason Theriot’s website here.