Roots of this marriage date back to 1944 on shores of France
By MIKE JAMES | The Daily Independent, Ashland, Ky. | Published: September 5, 2013
WESTWOOD, Ky. — Few would characterize the LST class of amphibious warships as beautiful.
But when Suzanne Figuiere saw a flotilla of the gawky, snub-nosed craft moored at the old port of her native Marseille, France, in September 1944, its ungraceful lines were not foremost on her mind.
Instead, the 18-year-old girl focused on the mighty bow doors through which poured tanks, trucks, men and supplies to scour France of its Nazi occupiers.
“I remember all that strength, all that force, all that hope coming out,” she said Wednesday.
Also disembarking from one of the ships was 20-year-old infantryman Don Childers of Auxier in Floyd County, who had joined the Army two years previously.
Figuiere didn’t see him get off the ship then, but she was to meet him a few weeks later. The events that followed explain why her name now is Suzanne Childers and why she left the busy, cosmopolitan seaport on the Mediterranean and crossed the ocean to live out her life in eastern Kentucky.
Don and Suzanne Childers, now 90 and 88 and living in a modest Westwood home, told the story of their wartime romance and marriage on Wednesday, the day one of the last remaining LST ships was scheduled to dock in Ashland for public visits.
Life in Marseille had been difficult since the Germans marched in in 1942. Decent food was scarce; Suzanne Childers remembers getting a single egg every few months. Soldiers and military regulations were everywhere; at any hour of the day armed troops might round up people in the street, check their credentials and haul away Jews and other “undesirables” to concentration camps.
When Allied troops liberated the town and surrounding region in August 1944, the locals were overjoyed. Newsreels from the time show them waving and cheering as columns of Allied soldiers march the streets.
Suzanne Childers recalls the sense of hope when the word spread through town that American ships were on the way. She made her way to the waterfront with some girlfriends on a sunny September afternoon to watch the landing and recalls being amazed by the order and discipline with which the troops unloaded tons of war materiel. “It was a big deal. It was the Americans with a big ‘A.’”
Don Childers arrived at Marseille that month. The shooting had moved inland and Childers, a musician in one of the Army’s bands, played baritone and sousaphone in his official capacity and found singing engagements in local clubs.
The two didn’t meet until December, when they made their separate ways to a dance.
When Childers walked in, his future wife was checking her coat. He immediately asked her, in broken French phrases, for a dance. “It was about all the French I knew,” he said. He was sure of one other thing: “She was the prettiest girl there.”
The band was playing “Stardust,” Suzanne Childers remembers, and she laughed nervously at the brash young serviceman. But she accepted his offer for that dance and also the next number, “In the Mood.”
They introduced themselves and danced some more. She didn’t allow him to walk her all the way home that evening. Well-bred French girls of the era didn’t do that, and Childers seemed, on first impression, to be something of a wolf. “I didn’t know I was going to marry him,” she said.
They met at other dances; possibly because Childers made sure their paths would cross. She remained cautious, but he found out where she lived, met her mother and charmed her family.
Still, it took the cautious French girl a while to let down her guard. It may have helped that Childers sang with local combos, knew all the latest tunes and had a voice some compared to Bing Crosby’s.
In July, six months after they met, Childers proposed. They were walking down the Rue de la Loubiere at the time. She said no.
An only child living with her divorced mother, she was worried about leaving her. Also, Childers was Protestant and she was Catholic.
A couple of months later, his time before shipping out for the States growing short, he proposed again and asked what it would take to change her answer.
By then he had won over her mother, visiting their home and helping with handyman chores, and once he conferred with their priest and agreed their children would be raised and educated as Catholics, and once Suzanne secured permission from both her parents, as was required then for girls younger than 21, she accepted.
About three months later, after reams of paperwork required for American servicemen to marry local girls, they were wed — twice: once in a civil ceremony at the courthouse and again in her parish church. The engagement had allowed him to extend his stay in Marseille.
They crossed the Atlantic separately and Childers got to Catlettsburg, where he then was living, on April 1, 1946, six days before she did.
Suzanne made the crossing in the Zebulon Vance, a liberty ship, with some 400 other war brides from France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Poland.
It was her first time in the United States and when she landed in New York the Red Cross assisted her in boarding her train for Catlettsburg.
Childers met her at the Catlettsburg train depot, the same depot that today serves as a community center. “He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. It was the first time I had ever seen him in civilian clothes,” she said.
He drove her home in a white prewar Dodge sedan through a Kentucky spring landscape in which “everything looked like Technicolor,” she said.
They raised three boys and two girls; he worked as a brakeman for the C&O Railroad and she taught French, and now they are retired with a house full of scrapbooks, clippings and other wartime memorabilia. Somewhere in one of their trunks they have the homemade American flag her mother made to hang over the balcony and welcome the GIs to Marseille.
They read with astonishment the news that a ship, one of the last remaining craft of the type that brought them together, was due to dock in Ashland.
They plan to visit and, although Childers gets around only with the help of a walker these days, hope to board the ship during its stay.
Because, as Suzanne Childers says, more than anything else, the ugly duckling of a ship evokes to her the joy and the hope she saw pouring out that September day, a bright future for her native France and, as it turned out, a new life and a new family for her.