A Woman of Uncommon Courage Fighting for the Free French — and for her survival — Rolande Amundson launched a lifetime adventure marked by tears and triumph By Fred Bost
The slight figure of the parachutist cleared the bomb bay of the darkened plane on signal and fell into the blackness of the French night. Propblast and the engines’ roar assaulted her senses. But as she plummeted downward, the whine of the four Rolls Royce engines on the British Lancaster faded eastward. Her black parachute snaked above her, caught the wind, and opened with spine-jarring suddenness.
|Rolande "Frenchy" Amundson SFA Convention, June 1997, Colorado Springs, Colorado "All dressed up for dinner Saturday evening"
Twisting beneath the canopy, she strained to peer through the overcast night, searching for the small clearing she knew was somewhere in the woods below. Once on the ground she would strip off her black coveralls and hastily bury them with the parachute, just as she had done on two occasions before. Then, carrying the small bag now strapped between her legs, she would make her way to Cherbourg to resume her job with the German occupiers. Once there she would again feed intelligence information to the British.
But when 20-year-old Rolande Colas drifted into the little clearing south of Evron that night of April 27, 1944, she discovered other plans had been made for her. She had been betrayed. Before she could gather up her parachute she was pounced upon by gendarmes, police of the puppet Vichy French government serving the Nazis. They had been waiting patiently in the woodline for her arrival.
Interrogation by the Gestapo was harsh. “I was scared to death,” she says today, her melodious voice still reflecting traces of her native France. “They wanted names. But I had been told only information needed for my assignment. I could furnish no names.” Her fingernails were ripped out before she was believed. Then the Nazis shuttled her overland by train to the Mauthausen concentration camp near the Czechoslovakia-Austria border. There she survived 11 months of grueling labor and near-starvation until the camp was liberated by American troops.
“I had to pour lime on the bodies of dead Jews,” she says. “Their open eyes stared up at me. I felt I owed something to those poor people. But I could do nothing — always there were the German guards with guns and dogs.”
Today, the silver-haired Rolande — called “Frenchy” by her friends — lives in Paso Robles, Calif., a naturalized U.S. citizen and widow of Eugene Amundson, longtime American soldier. She looks back with satisfaction on service that included spying for the Free French during World War II and driving an ambulance during the French Was in Indochina. If she learned anything from these adventures, she says, it was to persevere and have faith. These lessons later served her well as she fought cancer, two heart attacks, and the death of her husband in June 1980, only five months before she herself underwent the first of two heart operations.
Alone now, Frenchy has been adopted as an honorary Green Beret of the 3rd Battalion, 12th Special Forces Group, a reserve Army outfit in California.
“A casual conversation started it,” she says of the mutual admiration fostered between her and the veteran soldiers. “We have a thing in Paso Robles each September called ‘Airport Day.’ An air show and parachuting. I enjoy it very much. It brings back memories. In 1976 I watched Green Berets put on a skydiving show. Afterward, one of them asked me how I liked it. I told him I had jumped during the war in the 1940s.”
Frenchy told the Green Berets how she had become a spy. She had been born about 100 miles north of Bordeaux but left home to attend college in Paris, studying to be a doctor. In 1943 she had but three months to go to complete pre-med study when the Germans closed the school. They drafted all the young male students.
“That’s when I really got mad at the Germans,” Frenchy says. She convinced Paris authorities she was returning to her family near Bordeaux. At the same time she told her family she was still living in Paris. Actually, she sought out the Free French and trained to be part of the resistance movement.
She was spirited to Great Britain together with some downed airmen being returned. For six months she trained with the Free French Regiment of Chasseur Parachutists. She was strong for her size, a student of gymnastics, so she had no trouble handling a parachute. But she remembers how much she disliked the long interrogation sessions in which she was taught to resist questioners.
A graduate of spy school, she jumped back into France and spent a month with her family before seeking a job in Cherbourg. Young and attractive with long chestnut hair framing her blue-green eyes, Rolande had no trouble obtaining a job from the Germans as a food worker. Since Cherbourg was located in Normandy, separated from Britain by the narrowest width of the English Channel, the job was an important one. “I found out how many rations the Germans were sending from Cherbourg to defense forces along the coasts,” she said. “From that the Allies could determine how many soldiers were in each bunker.”
When the Allies wanted Rolande back in England to debrief her about conditions on the coast, she would beg the Germans for time off to go home to see her parents, feigning homesickness. She was returning from such a debriefing when she was captured, just 40 days before the Allied invasion of Europe at the very coastline she had analyzed.
Eleven months after her capture, the Allied juggernaut was driving the Germans back into their homeland. At about the time victorious Allied troops were breaching the Rhine River, the American 65th Infantry Division captured Mauthausen and liberated Frenchy and other prisoners in the concentration camp.
Frenchy had been forced to labor hard in the Mauthausen rock quarry. She was a skinny 89 pounds, 40 pounds lighter than the day of her capture. Her only clothing was heavy underwear ending at the knees, covered with a coarse workman’s smock. Despite a vicious winter, she was one of the more able-bodied captives in the compound. When the American troops opened the gates, Frenchy was there to help carry others out.
“I remember it was afternoon, bright, sunny, springtime,” she said, her eyes glistening. “We had lived so long with a feeling of having nothing left. And then — voila! — we were free. Miracle of miracles! I remember we went across a road into a field. Something green was growing there. I still don’t know what it was. We got on our hands and knees and ate it.”
But the torment of the concentration camp seemed nothing to the anguish she suffered in war-torn Indochina. After World War II, while she was a liaison officer with a French army mess-section in Paris, she married an army flyer, Robert Fournet. She and her husband were transferred to Saigon in 1947, where he flew against communist guerilla forces. She, in turn, served as a hospital worker and ambulance driver at the government hospital in Cholon, trying to ease the suffering of those maimed in the war.
Personal catastrophe struck twice, like lightning. First, her house was firebombed, causing the pregnant Rolande to lose her baby. Then the following week her husband was killed. She felt as if her family dreams, her life, were gone. On the day she departed Saigon’s Ton Son Nhut airport in 1949, the young widow looked back through tear-filled eyes at the smoke in the sky. “The whole flying squadron had been wiped out,” she says. “I left with nothing except the uniform I was wearing.”
Upon her return from the futile war in Vietnam, friends in France helped her recuperate. Eventually Rolande took a job with the United States Embassy in Paris. One day in 1951 she was pressed into service as an interpreter for a group of high-ranking officials at a country lodge known as Camp des Loges. The group included GEN Dwight Eisenhower, who had been called back into service by President Harry Truman as supreme commander of the allied powers in Europe. Ike complimented Frenchy on her sharp mind, saying, “You have a dry wit about you.” When they parted, he said, “We need people like you in America. If you ever want to come to the States, just write to me.”
Frenchy met her American husband-to-be in the American Embassy in December 1954. Handsome, with sandy hair and hazel eyes, Gene Amundson was an Army master sergeant stationed in Verdun. A quiet courtship ended in marriage.
In 1957 Amundson and his wife Rolande were transferred to the United States. At Fort Gordon, Ga., Frenchy discovered she was seriously ill with cancer. Her gallbladder was removed in the first of a number of agonizing hospital sessions that spanned the next four years.
The years of pain were offset by one happy event, though. President Eisenhower, who in 1960 heard Frenchy had been admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., paid a spontaneous visit to her bedside. “The whole hospital was upside down,” she recalled. She remembers most his final words to her, “God bless you.”
Amundson, an expert electronics technician in the Signal Corps, served in Panama, Thailand, Guam and Okinawa, with Frenchy always at his side. In 1971 he retired from military service and the couple settled in Paso Robles.
It was at the airport in September 1976 that Frenchy made friends with LTC Jim Beard and his Green Berets. In December 1977 Beard invited Frenchy and her husband to a Special Forces banquet in San Francisco. Frenchy, who had suffered a heart attack in 1974 and was recuperating from a second heart attack in 1977, was worried about making the trip, but her husband encouraged her.
To her dismay, Beard introduced her at the banquet as the surprise guest of honor, citing her as “an extraordinary woman.” She was presented with a green beret and named an honorary lieutenant colonel in the Special Forces Association. With tears in her eyes, she listened to her life story being recounted to the crowd.
When Eugene Amundson died of cancer on June 13, 1980, the Green Berets served as his guard of honor at the military funeral. Heartbroken, Frenchy cried, “I have no more family.”
“We are your family,” Beard told her simply. “Just call on us. We’ll be there.”
Five months later she learned she needed Green Beret encouragement badly. She was told by her doctors that without heart surgery she would die. But the Green Berets would listed to no talk of dying. They donated 21 pints of blood to help save Frenchy’s life. Many of them stood by at the Los Angeles hospital during the nine hours doctors performed a difficult triple bypass. “Frenchy is too valuable to lose,” explained CSM Stanley Parker.
In 1984 Frenchy underwent another heart operation. Yet she remains undaunted. In tribute to her adopted family, the Green Berets, she donated more than $12,000 to a Special Forces museum planned at Fort Bragg, N.C. “I want to show my thankfulness to these soldiers I respect and love,” she says.
Frenchy lives quietly in Paso Robles, sharing her modest two-bedroom house with a pet cat. In conversations with young and old alike, she speaks without hesitation of the ravages of her homeland during the war, and of the anguish of Indochina. But she never speaks with complaint. To Frenchy, hardship is what makes the golden part of life stand out in its goodness.
The solace she gives military wives and widows sums up her feelings. “Many of our countrymen never fully realize what they enjoy as Americans,” she points out. “They’ve never seen contrast. Because you and I have paid a price of sacrifice, we appreciate freedom. We recognize the joy of living.
“In that respect,” she suggests, “perhaps what we have suffered has really been a godsend.”