George Rock
History of the American Field Service


1914 to 1940

(September 1939 to March 1940)

After a summer of increasing tension, Britain, and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 and World War II had begun. In the United States, lethargy, isolationism, and an attitude of nonintervention were very strong. However, within Field Service circles the determination once again to work for France had been steadily growing, and discussions were well under way before the actual declaration of war.

Among the first to offer their services to Mr. Galatti were W. de Ford Bigelow (SSU 4), Enos Curtin (SSU 2), Roswell Miller (TMU 526), C. V. S. Mitchell (Formation Harjes), A. Pendleton Taliaferro, Jr. (SSU 19), and William H. Wallace, Jr. (SSU 4-28). Shortly after the declaration of war, Mr. Bigelow was appointed New England representative, with Headquarters in Boston. Mr. Miller donated office space for the national Headquarters in New York City as well as its administration expenses and his own considerable efforts. Mr. Mitchell drew up the form of organization to cover the requirements and offered the legal services of his firm. Messrs. Curtin, Miller, Mitchell, and Taliaferro were appointed to the Executive Committee, and their names were signed, jointly with that of Mr. Galatti, to the application for registration with the Department of State (according to the requirements of the Neutrality Law). Mr. Taliaferro filed this application and received Department of State Registration No. 94, which permitted the American Field Service to raise funds for a volunteer ambulance service in France and insured the issuance of passports to any volunteer drivers sponsored by the officials of the organization. The study of ambulance design and construction was assigned to Mr. Wallace. And Lucy MacDonald De Maine (Boston and Paris HQ, and later AFS Association Secretary) was made Secretary of the revived Service.

Several aspects of the revival were made most difficult by the general indifference in the United States to the new war. Donations were hard to get. The only volunteers were a few members of the AFS Association. And even sponsors were reluctant to step forward and offer their names. Owing to the political ramifications of isolationist sentiment expressed by various groups and committees, many important people who had been great supporters of the Field Service in World War I did not feel that they could lend their names for the general AFS committee (although their private acts of kindness greatly assisted the early stages of organization).

The Boston office was from the beginning extremely busy and successful, as was fitting in the American home of the organization. Mr. Bigelow, assisted by H. B. Willis (SSU 2), gathered a group of interested people to form an executive committee with Mr. Bigelow as chairman: Mrs. Charles R. Codman (wife of Charles R. Codman II, SSU 3) as Vice-Chairman, and Roger Griswold (SSU 4), Richard Lawrence (SSU 3), Donald Moffat (SSU 4), and Mr. Willis. In addition, a general committee of sponsors was formed under the chairmanship of Alan Forbes, president of the State Street Trust Company. It included many prominent Bostonians associated with the old Field Service either as drivers, committee members, or patrons. The first ambulance donation was made by Mrs. Charles G. Weld, who, with members of her family, had donated the entire SSU 17 in World War 1. This ambulance, at the suggestion of the Field Service and with Mrs. Weld's consent, was inscribed in memory of Mr. Andrew. Shortly. thereafter an anonymous Boston donation supplied an ambulance that was inscribed in memory of Henry Davis Sleeper,

At the same time, the New York office was soliciting its former supporters. The earliest ambulance donations were those from Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Mr. and Mrs. Roswell Miller, Miss Edith Scoville, and Hon. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss (who had contributed to the old Service the entire SSU 9). A plaque from one of the ambulances of SSU 9, bearing the inscription "Offert aux défenseurs de la France par Deux Reconnaissants" was returned to the Field Service and later was sent to France for one of the new cars.

In November, William C. Bullitt, United States Ambassador to France, permitted the use of his name as Honorary President of the American Field Service. Mr. Forbes became chairman of the nation-wide General Committee of sponsors. Thomas Hitchcock, Jr., agreed to act as Treasurer. On the General Committee, as on the Boston committee, were many names long associated with the American Field Service. In the United States there were Mrs. Isaac Patch, sister of A. Piatt Andrew; Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss; André de Coppet, whose generosity had in no small measure made the original AFS possible; Mrs. Homer Gage, one of the staunchest supporters in the old days, whose son Homer Gage, Jr., had been a member of SSU 31; Mrs. Paul Moore, who had donated and raised funds for ambulances and was to do so again; S. H. Pell, representing the former Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps; and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, whose affection for the Service had been unceasing through the years.

The backbone of the developing organization was provided by the veteran ambulanciers, who organized local committees to arouse interest in the Service, to collect funds, and to interview volunteers. It was a difficult task, in face of the general feeling that the war would have little fighting and that few ambulances would therefore be needed. Without the wholehearted support of these local committees, the AFS would have had a precarious and probably a short life. After Boston, the earliest of these were begun in Chicago by Thomas G. Cassady (SSU 13), in Cincinnati by Beman G. Dawes, Jr. (TMU 184), in Cleveland by Frank H. Boyd (SSU 18), in California by Paul F. Cadman (SSU 8 and TMU 133 ) and Perry J. Patton (TMU 133), in Florida by Leslie Buswell (SSU 2 in the South by John H. McFadden, Jr. (Comptroller, Paris Headquarters ), who did outstanding work at fund-raising after the fall of the Maginot Line, and in Vermont by John Fisher (SSU 2, Headquarters, and SSU 20).

Mr. Galatti requested Lovering Hill (SSU 3) to act as director in France. Reluctantly, Mr. Hill consented, with the stipulation that he be permitted to step down if, as the Service developed, someone better equipped for leadership should come forward. He first opened headquarters in his own law office, moving in October to space at the National City Bank, 52 Avenue des Champs Elysées, donated by Robert E. Pearce, Treasurer of the French organization. To help Mr. Hill came Mme Renée Grimbert and Mlle Germaine Bétourné, both members of the Paris staff during World War I.

Friends and members of the Service rallied round. Maurice Barber, brother of W. M. Barber (SSU 3), offered his services for the duration. Julian L. B. Allen (SSU 4 and SSU29) was of the utmost help to Mr. Hill in laying the groundwork, in doing the work of liaison with the French authorities, and in continuing his interest and active support throughout. J. G. B. Campbell (SSU 1) was also of assistance in the early stages, as was Roswell Sanders (SSU 4). American residents of France gave their support-contributing 6 of the 20 ambulances required for the first section as well as funds for the initial expense and maintenance of the Service. Members of the General Committee from France included Mme Jacques Balsan, John Ridgely Carter, General de Chambrun, Mrs. Nelson Dean Jay, and Mme J. J. Jusserand who with Ambassador Jusserand had for many years been among the most devoted friends of the Field Service.

With the basic organization established, attention could be turned to the specific problems of producing an ambulance service. First the volunteers had to be found. Ambulances had to conform to French specifications. Orders providing for the American Field Service to be attached to the French armies had to be obtained. And, finally, efforts to have AFS agree to amalgamate with other ambulance services in France had to be resisted.

Each problem required its own body of correspondence, and this in turn added further problems. The erratic and usually slow passage of letters between Paris and New York gave poignancy to the cry of "I have received an undated letter from you." And cables, while fast, required such a special literary technique that their sending could provoke: "I may be too verbose a cabler, but I wish you would be a little less chary in this respect." Use of the telephone would have averted letters reading "I hope I was clear on this . . . but I may as well repeat," and also "Destroy this!" But the telephone service had been the war's first casualty.

One of Mr. Hill's earliest concerns was the quality of the volunteers selected by local representatives. Early in September he wrote: "In view of the military control over the volunteer, which you know was in the last war hardly more than symbolic, it is essential that the standard . . . be an extremely high one." In addition to the obvious qualifications, both positive and negative, a special problem was raised by the French preference that men over forty years of age should not be sent. They approved a few exceptions, but when the character of the war was later gauged they asked that the top age be reduced to thirty.

"I think it is very hard for all of us to realize," wrote Mr. Galatti, "that this is a job for volunteers of the same age we were when we went out and that our interest must now lie in trying to further the Service by interesting others to give money . . . feeling that [we] are responsible in having the younger men carry on [the Service]."

In spite of this warning, it was not always easy to convince those rushing to offer their automotive skills to their old Service that they would be of more use exercising their mature talents as heads of local committees.

The light ambulance had been the trade-mark and almost the invention of the Field Service and it was what the French asked again to have supplied. Mr. Wallace, with the technical advice and full co-operation of General Motors, selected a light-truck chassis to be knocked down and sent to France for reassembly. In January 1940 he went to Paris to arrange with French "carrossiers" for building the 22 bodies for Section I. The chassis reached Paris in the latter part of February, but there was great delay in actual construction---partly because of shortages of different materials, partly because of a muddle of official red tape, and partly because of the increasing mobilization of mechanics. The mobilization of the chief windshield-constructor in the middle of April brought work to a temporary halt, and the last car of Section I was not delivered until 14 May. Although the French army had changed to khaki, the AFS ambulances were painted the same blue-gray they had been in World War I.

The "carrossier" devised a sturdy sliding-channel system of stretcher suspension-capable of being folded vertically in the center of the car when carrying sitting patients. The French were reluctant to authorize this innovation to replace their system of leather straps until comparative tests of the speed of loading and unloading proved that the AFS system saved over two, possibly vital, minutes on each operation. However, because of the delay in approval, only half the first section went to the front with the improved system, thanks to which these ambulances were able to carry far more casualties than the official maximum.

When Mr. Wallace went to Paris, he left J. W. Brant to arrange with General Motors for the floatation of the chassis and for the spare parts. The latter was probably the more difficult task---when you consider that a "reverse idling gear countershaft," sufficiently formidable in English, becomes in French a "pignon de marche arriËre sur arbre secondaire" and a "front spring main leaf" is transformed into a "lame maitresse ressort avant."

The papers necessary to get the American Field Service accredited and into the field were numerous, complicated, and delayed by frequent changes of ministers. The basic "décret-loi" defining the AFS status and the French responsibility to AFS was not promulgated until early February. This had to be implemented by an "arreté d'acceptation," to be issued when all the materiel and men of the section had been obtained. After this had been signed by the offices of War and Foreign Affairs in mid-April, an "instruction" to constitute each section into a unit and to allow the cars military numbers, the French lieutenant to be assigned, and equipment to be drawn---was still needed. This required proof that both men and cars were on hand. The "instruction" for Section I was obtained on 18 April. In a supplement it allowed both the inclusion of 13 men over the age of forty-one and an excess of drivers over the normal establishment---for the express purpose of training men to lead subsequent sections.

The American Field Service was not the only ambulance group that had volunteered to help France. Among the others were the Iroquois (from which later came some members of Section 1), the Anglo-American Ambulance at Cannes (organized by Eric Dunstan, for which AFS acted as American agent), and the Oeuvres Françaises des Sections Sanitaires; (a Franco-American organization with considerable backing). In spite of some overtures that the Field Service merge with one or another of these groups, it preferred to stand alone, relying on its good name and its trusted friends. The Franco-American group raised a special problem, as it was connected with the American Hospital, included many old friends of the Service, and was headed by Mme le Maréchal Joffre.

However, "we must be very careful in not accepting French collaboration or possibly even French gifts or money," Mr. Hill advised.

"It seems to me that the great comfort which the Field Service gave to untold numbers of, people, civilian as well as soldiers, was that the organization was 100 percent American. The minute it becomes known that it is a Franco-American outfit, the factor of 'moral comfort' is undermined, if not completely destroyed, because the 'poilu' or the man on the street cannot measure the proportions of the American and French contributions respectively."

Clearly the policy had to be one of "no entanglements," either with well-meaning French or similar-minded American groups. In spite of this, some pressure was exerted from within and without the Service to have it merge with a group including among its numbers some members of the old Field Service. Only after the AFS Section I had sailed from New York on 23 March 1940 was the pressure for merger abated. It quite died away in the furor of spontaneous French acclaim over the arrival of the first Americans to come as a group to the aid of France.

Chapter I, France 1940
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