How a World War II Private Accidentally Joined the French Resistance

FacebookTwitterPinterestEmailShare
Pfc. Stephen Weiss, third from left, in France, 1944, after being cut off from his U.S. army unit.

Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of Southern France during World War II, often gets lost in the shadow of the Normandy invasions. Dragoon came little more than a month after the Allies crossed the English Channel, on Aug. 15, 1944. 

More than 151,000 troops cleared the way for more than half a million troops to swarm onto the beaches of the French Riviera. At the same time, tens of thousands of members of the French Resistance finally got the chance to rise up against their German occupiers. 

Pfc. Stephen Weiss landed on the Côte d'Azur that summer day, with the U.S. 36th Infantry Division. He would get separated from his unit before rejoining them in October. In the nearly two months he was away, he found himself fighting alongside the resistance and agents from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to what is today called the CIA.

Weiss was a kid from Brooklyn, New York, who joined the U.S. Army in 1942 to get into a psychological warfare unit. He was only 17 years old. Instead of getting his dream job, he found himself in the Texas National Guard with the 143rd Infantry, 36th Infantry Division.

The 36th Infantry landed in North Africa in 1943, where it trained in Morocco. It missed the Tunisian Campaign and was passed over for more experienced soldiers for the Allied invasion of Sicily. It cut its amphibious teeth in Italy and became the first American unit to fight the Axis on the European mainland when it fought at the Battle of Salerno in Italy in 1943.

German resistance and counterattacks were stiff and swift, but they made their way inland and up the Italian Peninsula, fighting major battles at San Pietro and Monte Cassino as 1943 turned to 1944. Taking heavy losses, Weiss and the 36th were sent back to the rear to rest and recuperate before landing in southern France in August 1944. 

Operation Dragoon was intended to occur at the same time as the Normandy landings, but it didn't have the materials necessary to land on the beaches by June 6, 1944. When the invasion finally came, the 36th landed at Saint-Raphaël, codenamed Camel Beach. Resistance was minimal and the Allies secured a beachhead, but the German counterattacks would be much worse. 

As the Allies in northern France fought through the hedgerows, the 36th fought inland, liberating Grenoble and moving into the Rhône River valley. It was there the retreating Germans decided to hold their ground. Weiss' 143rd Infantry was pummeled by the defenders, and as the American retreated, Weiss and seven of his fellow soldiers found themselves separated and alone. 

They hid in a ditch to pass the night, moving the next day to a nearby farm, where a farmer stashed the American troops in his hayloft. The farmer sought help from the Maquis, members of the French Resistance, which came to the aid of the Americans. They dressed as French police officers and made their way across the front to the town of Alboussière.

At Alboussière, they met the regional Maquis commander, a French Foreign Legionnaire who allowed Weiss to accompany his fighters on their missions. For weeks at a time, Weiss helped the resistance harass German troops as the Allies closed in from the north and south. 

In September 1944, the Office of Strategic Services airdropped operatives into France. Aided by the resistance, Lt. Roy K. Rickerson and Lt. W.H. McKenzie III set up their own operational group to further sabotage the German defenders. Weiss joined them in cutting communication lines, destroying bridges and protecting OSS radio operators. 

Weiss' days as a resistance fighter were numbered, however. He was still a soldier in the U.S. Army, and the Allied soldiers from Operation Dragoon had linked up with the troops from Operation Overlord on Sept. 12, 1944. After the failure of Operation Market Garden in September of that year, the Allied advance was stalling and German opposition was stiffening. 

For his valor in guerrilla fighting behind enemy lines, Pfc. Stephen Weiss was awarded the French Resistance Medal, two Croix de Guerre and the Bronze Star. French President Jacques Chirac presented him with the Legion d'Honneur in 1999. He was subsequently promoted to an officer of the Legion d'Honneur in 2007 and a commander of the Legion d'Honneur in 2013. 

Weiss struggled with what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder after returning to his unit, even being convicted of desertion during the war. Cooler heads prevailed, however, recognizing Weiss' condition for what it was. He was cleared of wrongdoing and spent the rest of the war working as a photographer. 

Stephen Weiss went home in 1946 and moved to Los Angeles, where he studied radio and television production. He worked in the entertainment industry for 30 years before retiring and taking on a new career: military history. He died in March 2020 after earning a doctorate from King's College in London, authoring two books and becoming a popular lecturer. 

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for post-military careers or keeping up with military life and benefits, Military.com has you covered. Subscribe to Military.com to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Show Full Article
Military History World War II