In every war there’s a lot that happens behind the front lines. Sometimes it’s training or mission related but sometimes troops just need to break the monotony. Many used their service as a chance to play tourist. Milwaukee’s John J. Haddock, serving in France during World War I, was no different.
I was taking a walk one Sunday afternoon, and I met an American sailor. He says, “Where you going?” I says, “I’m not going anywhere in particular. I’m taking a walk.” “Then walk down that street,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going on down there. I just came up from there.” He was on that way, past this building there, and they had about twenty to thirty French girls there, all dressed so funny. He says, “They all threw kisses at me and waved at me when I went by.” He says, “So go on, walk down there.” So I thought, well, I’m seventeen years old, I’m out for a good time [laughs], you know, and I started to walk down. As I did I see them all coming up the street towards me.
So they turned in the house on the corner where I was standing. The minute they got in the curtains came apart, and they were waving at me and throwing kisses to me through the window. Pretty soon a young man came out. He says, “I talk a little English,” he says. And he says, “The girls want you to come in and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for them.” I didn’t even know the words [laughs]. I says, “Who are those girls, anyhow?” “Oh,” he says, “they’re a bunch of school girls in costume. They’re rehearsing a play they’re gonna put on in about a week.” He says, “Won’t you please come in?” “Oh,” I says, “all right, I’ll come in.” He says, “They’re serving coffee and cake in there.” Well, that sounded good to me, so I went in. Then they got me up to the piano, and we sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and I mumbled and hummed through most of it. Then they sang “The Marseillaise,” which is a beautiful song and so forth. I see this one girl over there, and I kinda took a shine to her. Then I start talkin’ to her, and she took me in and introduced me to her mother, who was there. So when it come time to leave her mother came over and asked me if I wouldn’t go home to dinner with ‘em. Well, I sure would. I went on, and I got the nice meal. So I started to go with Blanche Mitard . Not much, but on and off.
So that was the end of those girls.
But John kept in touch with Blanche and later his wife, Eleanor, even wrote Blanche letters and exchanged gifts with her. Around 1925, though, the correspondence stopped abruptly. On a trip to France in 1968, John and Eleanor made a point of stopping at many of the memorable spotsfrom John’s service. And they made sure to look for Blanche.
I took a cab out to where she had lived, rang the bell. Nobody answered. I said what do I expect, somebody after fifty years to come down and say, “Hello, John”?
So, on a hunch I went across the street to a bakery shop. I says, “Mitard?” and I pointed across the street. “Oh, oui,” she says, “oh, oui.” She started rattling off French to me, and I couldn’t understand her. So she called a kid out of the garage to tell me what she was saying. He says, “Go next door to number 6. They moved from number 8.” Okay, so I went over and rang the bell at number 6. Who’s going to come here? Somebody I know. Elderly woman answered the door; seventy-eight years old she was. I looked at her, and I looked at her, and after fifty years I recognized her as Blanche’s older sister Denise. So I said to her, “Denise?” She says, “Oui.” She looked at me, who in the dickens are you? So I had a picture of Blanche and I showed it to her. She started to cry, “Morte, 1925.” She died of tuberculosis.
This story was produced in partnership with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. Discover more about Wisconsin in the First World War at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum’s Temporary Exhibit – WWI BEYOND THE TRENCHES: STORIES FROM THE FRONT.