While in France, we took a train south to Châteauroux and spent a couple days. This is the small town where Jim lived for four years as a child. His father was stationed there 1952-1956 to help build a United States Air Force Base at Déols Airfield. The Germans used Déols in WWII and the Allied forces bombed the area heavily. Damage was concentrated on the airfield, 7km north of Châteauroux, and the train station in town. Looking at the old (unbombed) portion of Châteauroux and the post-WWII rebuilt area offers a distinct reminder of that bombing.
Jim’s family lived in the middle of town. Using a couple photographs of the house and the street name, we were able to find the exact house he lived in. Amazingly, it was still standing and largely unchanged. When we knocked on the door, the sweet family living there welcomed us in. They were excited to see pictures from the past and gave us a complete tour.
Several features of the house provoked Jim’s memories: interior glass transoms above bedroom doors, a round window looking onto the street, steep stairs to the attic with narrow treads, a large walled-in backyard with a few small nooks in the stone walls, the doorway to the basement, and the kitchen. Next to the house is a shed wall that lives on in the family memory. When Jim lived there, the local Communist Party came over after weekly meetings and painted “Yanqui go home” in whitewash. On the weekend, Jim’s dad washed the wall clean, leaving a blank canvas until their next meeting.
Châteauroux is a beautiful small town, full of medieval buildings, art, large parks, walking paths, and a couple museums. Its charm made us wish we had longer to explore the area. Although few Americans visit, we found some information in English and took a self-guided walking tour. As we explored, Jim remembered one of the large churches, the preserved lavoirs (public laundry areas), and the large park with ponds full of waterfowl. This was an area his mom took the kids on walks every day. We even found the bridge that can be seen in the background of a photograph Jim’s mom took of a temporary Roma camp. On the street where his house was, we were able to find what used to be a tire shop that he played in as a child.
In 1966, Charles de Gaulle ordered the withdrawal of American forces from France. In March 1967, 6000 Americans left Châteauroux. When the order came from de Gaulle to leave France, President Johnson prompted his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, to ask for further clarification. Rusk recalls that de Gaulle did not respond when he asked “Does your order include the bodies of American soldiers in France’s cemeteries?” (There are about 66,000 American soldiers buried in France between the two world wars. A fraction of those who died in France are buried there. France has 11 American cemeteries, the largest number of any country outside USA.) It seems the departure was a major economic setback for Châteauroux and Americans are spoken of well in the community to this day. If you want to learn more, check out this article in the New York Times.
You can see all our pictures of Châteauroux here.