Unsung heroines get their due

history | Women of Valor: The Rochambelles on the WWII Front, by Ellen Hampton, Palgrave Macmillan, $24.95, 256 pages

Ellen Hampton's fast-paced book tells the story of an outstanding group of women who were at the front lines of World War II in France. Some of these women are living still, making Hampton's story even more compelling. The Rochambelles -- formed at a time when women in France were not yet entitled to vote and had no more property rights than minors -- was organized in New York by Florence Conrad, a wealthy American widow living in France who was determined to create an all-female ambulance corps to help with the war effort.

After Conrad spent two years lobbying military and political leaders for permission to form an all-female ambulance corps to support French liberation in World War II, the group, starting out as the Rochambeau Group, was accepted as part of Free French in July 1943. Eventually, the group was assigned to the French Second Armored Division, which was equipped by and attached to the U.S Army. That is where the young women who became known as the Rochambelles began their military careers. Conrad led the group until August 1944.

Unfolding the story chronologically, Hampton introduces us to the women honestly -- most of the Rochambelles were single, some were married, two had left their husbands, and one was a lesbian -- picturing a consortium that reflects almost any gathering of women nowadays. Some were from wealthy families and were not accustomed to the hard life they chose as ambulance drivers.

Hampton -- a journalist who has covered Latin American politics, economics and the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador -- said she was fascinated when she first heard of the Rochambelles as three of the women spoke at a meeting of the Paris chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. "I had never heard of women in a World War II armored division," she says. "I definitely had never heard of women on the front lines of World War II in Europe, and I had heard plenty of stories about the war."

Both American and French women who were living in America for various reasons (marriage, work, or, in the case of one French Rochambelle, standing on American soil when France was invaded) signed up in the States for training, a hard life and the challenges that lay ahead as the war in Europe grew. Unfortunately, as the group became officially recognized as part of the Free French forces, the dozen American women were refused permission by the State Department to serve under French command. They were deeply disappointed to be left behind, especially since they had already been trained as mechanics and drivers, according to Hampton.

Eventually totaling about 50 women, in early September 1943, the first group left Pennsylvania Station and ended up in Casablanca along with about 6,000 American soldiers. Their adventure and amazing heroism, shown during some of the hardest fighting of the war on French soil, had begun. On July 30, 1944, serving under General Patton, the division crossed the English Channel to Normandy. On Aug. 6, the group was bombed at Ducey. From Aug. 8 to 18, they saved soldiers' lives with never-tiring ambulance service during the Battle of Normandy. The Rochambelles, named after the revolution-era count who led French troops to assist the Americans, were among the first to enter Paris in August 1944 during the liberation. From November to February '45, the women assisted the soldiers at the front line at Strasbourg, Erstein and Herbsheim, Lorraine, the Colmar Pocket and Grussenhein.

Hampton keeps a cool head and a lack of sentimentality as she describes how they struggled on several fronts. The women control the dry-mouth fear as bombs explode nearby or when they discover at the brink that the bridge they are rumbling over in absolute blackness of night with an ambulance of wounded soldiers ends midway across the river. They also deal with resentment and hostility from male soldiers and military leaders. Some men did not want women participating in the war; some were jealous when the Rochambelles received due praise for their courageous acts. No doubt Hampton's matter-of-fact tone reflects the attitudes of the women she interviewed for the book. They would be the first to say, "We just did our job."

With a reporter's eye, Hampton describes one note in the chronology: "Jacotte (Jacqueline Fournier) and Crapette (Demay) spend Christmas in the Witternheim cellar." The details draw you straight to that chilly Christmas cellar: "It was clear and cold; the temperature hovered at -14 degrees C (6.8 degrees F). At 5 p.m. the shelling stopped, a precious gift of silence against the rolling thunder that had rung in their ears for the past week." There was no heat in the cellar, just relative safety. According to Hampton, "every few hours, Jacotte and Crapette took turns running to the ambulance, head down and doubled over, to start the engine so that it [the ambulance] wouldn't freeze."

Hampton has told a dramatic, little-known aspect of WWII. But she didn't stop there; she also describes the "hard part" -- the difficulty some of the women had in resuming "normal" life after the war. And she brings us up-to-date on the lives of the women now. Through this book, she introduces us to average women who passionately chose to do something extraordinary, who did it well and with grace.

Hampton, resident director of the City University of New York's Paris exchange program, lives outside Paris with her husband and two children.

Anyone interested in World War II history or women's efforts during the war, or those simply fascinated by the extraordinary courage and conviction of these women, will find this book a well-written chronology of personal involvement. Readers share their fear during intense fighting, their boredom during quiet times and their social interactions, see the French landscape during war, and learn about French families and connections during the occupation.