The Captain

by: Robert Boucheron

Part 3, of a 3 part glimpse into the wondrous real life adventures of Pierre Boucheron…

IMG_Pierre H. Boucheron

    Pierre Boucheron, my grandfather, a reserve naval officer called to active duty in 1941, led an expedition to Greenland to set up a radio station. The Navy rewarded him for this year-long task with a desk job in Washington, but he found it dull. The Navy Bureau of Personnel found another post for the restless officer. From his notes for “The Story of a Naval Reservist:”

The Casablanca assignment, August 1943 to September 1944. Armed with a passport, a civilian suit, and 50 pounds of baggage, I fly across the Atlantic on a Belanca 44 that loses a motor 400 miles off Ireland. Twenty assorted passengers, mostly military, take their hair down in Ireland with the help of fine Irish whiskey. Casablanca is a far cry from the peace, the cold, the ice, the winds of Greenland! Admiral Frank Lowry, USN, some notes on two regular officers, one an Annapolis graduate, the other a mustang. Getting along with the French – one of my few accomplishments pays off, my 3.9 ability to handle the French language. The Arabs and the Sultan of Morocco. Ouissam Alaouite Chérifien, a decoration. I reach my goal, the four stripes of a naval captain, and am sworn in as Captain USNR.

In Casablanca, he was the liaison between American forces and the Free French Navy. After France fell to Germany in 1940, part of the country was governed by a puppet regime in the southern city of Vichy. The Allies saw the French Navy under Vichy as a threat. From 1940 to 1942, they boarded and attacked French ships, and they encouraged French sailors to defect. In November 1942, they fought a naval battle at Casablanca. As a result of these actions, the Free French Navy was formed under General Charles de Gaulle, with most of its forces in Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria and Dakar, Senegal.

Captain Boucheron wrote six or more short pieces in French while he was in Morocco. He then translated them into English. They describe an encounter with journalist Martin Sheridan, who survived the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston in 1942; a bout of dysentery; an Arab feast; and trips to Algiers, Gibraltar, Naples and Pompeii. He was told that a village with his name existed, so on February 20, 1944, a Sunday, he hired a driver for a day trip into the Moroccan bled or backcountry. He wrote an account of his trip in French, “Une Visite à Boucheron.”

A monument in the village square explains that the village was named for a cavalry lieutenant named Pierre Bramaud du Boucheron, who was killed in action in 1908. Unable to get lunch, Pierre drinks a glass of wine in the village’s one bistro. There he meets an old French veteran, Sergeant Cornice, the very man who lashed the body of the lieutenant to his horse and brought it back for burial. Cornice sends an Arab boy to fetch his official report. Pierre copies it, a battle scene, and they drink “another round of that wretched wine to the memory of the valiant lieutenant.”

The Allies invaded Normandy starting June 6, 1944. They liberated Paris on August 25, 1944. In September, Captain Boucheron transferred to Paris, where he continued to work as liaison. To return to “The Story of a Naval Reservist:”

The Paris assignment, September 1944 to July 1945. When Vice Admiral Alan G. Kirk is picking his staff for COMNAVFRANCE in Washington, he insists on a French-speaking communicator. I meet and report to a Chief of Staff who tries awfully hard to live up to his name, Rood! I had been warned that this would be a tough command as the admiral was a disciplinarian and very “regulations.” Again my knowledge of French comes to my aid. The unbending, ungracious General de Gaulle. OSS characters in Paris. I meet an old friend again, Lt. Lloyd Jacquet, USNR. The French Navy of 1945. Our billet is the swank Hotel Monceau. Operation Venerable to annihilate what remains of German pockets on the west coast of France. Notes on Cognac, France. Getting along with the British. Lt. Leo Larkin, one of the ablest reservists I ever met, ablest in getting things done but quick! Lt. George Lavalle, USNR, débrouillard extraordinaire, and the bronze star he would not wear. I visit my birthplace at long last – I had tried during World War I and failed.

I complete my task of installing and operating U. S. Naval communications in France with the help of experts such as Larkin and regular Navy specialists. Knowing when to practice the art of “silence is golden.” I catch up with a U. S. Army Signal Corps communicator, my son, Lt. Pierre H. Boucheron, Jr. [who stopped in Paris in 1945 on the way to Germany, where he set up radio stations]. Operation Venerable thanks to the AAF and RAF is a success, and I secure a German naval trophy. VE Day in Paris [May 8, 1945]. Last days in Paris. The Légion d’Honneur. [On June 27, 1945, the French government awarded him the Croix de Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.] Why I choose surface craft transportation for the return home. I board the USS Hermitage at Le Havre. Minor honors on board, the captain’s table, the write-up in the ship’s paper. Lloyd Jacquet and I ruminate.

While in Paris in 1945, he wrote at least two pieces, “The French Attitude, or a People Divided” and “Madame la Concierge.” He may have intended to publish them in magazines, and the same may be true of the ones he wrote in 1944. “Madame la Concierge” is a portrait of a woman who runs a thriving black market business from her tiny loge at the entrance to an apartment building. The piece mentions “le système D,” where D stands for débrouillard. The verb se débrouiller means “to get out of difficulties, to manage.”

Although he neglects to mention it, Captain Boucheron kept a mistress in Paris. Hortense sent Christmas cards every year, and after his death to his son, who may have met her. He also does not mention the jeweler Boucheron, located at 26 Place Vendôme. Founded in 1858, the shop is still at the height of fashion and unrelated to our family.

In a studio photograph, wearing his captain’s uniform at age 56, he looks handsome and confident. To return to 1945 and “The Story of a Naval Reservist:”

My four stripes and “fruit salad” make me a would-be hero in the nightclubs of New York. At Washington, there is some talk about relieving the communicator at the naval command of the Chinese Sea Frontier, but the war is over. I return to civilian life and my old job with the Farnsworth Television & Radio Corp. at Fort Wayne.

Adjustment to civilian life has its problems and frustrations. On a street bus, I converse in French with an Italian-born Farnsworth engineer who speaks better French than English. A fellow bus passenger labels me: “A goddamned foreigner. You ought to go back where you came from if English ain’t good enough for you!”

It is good, however, to have a country to come back to after witnessing the startling cruelties and injustices of Europe’s war-ravaged countries. That includes France, my native land.

From September 1945 to January 1, 1946, Captain Boucheron was Director of Public Relations for Farnsworth. From then on, he was the General Manager of WGL, the radio and television station Farnsworth owned in Fort Wayne. He also hosted a radio program called “The Veteran Speaks” on WGL in 1947. From about 1946, he helped to organize the US Naval Reserve in Fort Wayne. This activity suggested a book for which he wrote the notes quoted above. In the 1940s and 1950s he wrote at least five lectures, including one on his Greenland adventure.

He retired from the Naval Reserve in 1950 and from Farnsworth in 1953. He received a full pension from the Navy. He had more than one address in Fort Wayne. By 1956, he had moved to 2813 Bellaire Drive, a small, detached house with one bedroom, near the Fort Wayne Country Club. He stayed active as a public speaker and as a volunteer. He noted “Goodwill Industries, 1960-1962” in a list of jobs. Though he abandoned the books on Greenland and the Naval Reserve, he wrote How to Enjoy Life after Sixty. He published it in 1959 with Archer House, Inc., distributed by Herman & Stephens, Inc., a subsidy press.

Before and after this date, he gave talks on retirement living. He had a booking agent called Crawford Productions, 5601 Riverdale Ave., New York, NY. They printed a flyer on his talk titled “The Second Voyage of Your Life.” From the flyer:

Captain Boucheron has interviewed hundreds of septuagenarians and octogenarians, has visited numerous Golden Age clubs, Senior Citizen Community Centers, and has attended seminars and workshops on aging. He has addressed numerous Rotary, Lions, Optimist, Soroptimist, Women’s Clubs, P.T.A., Veteran, and other senior groups throughout the country.

A testimonial on the flyer from John Carrocio of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers called it “a very fine, most helpful talk at our Wednesday luncheon meeting.”

Captain Boucheron promoted his book through organizations of which he was a member. The Army-Navy-Air Force Register & Defense Times carried a series of articles from the book, and “Associate Editor H. R. Baukhage conducted a series of radio interviews with the author.” Baukhage wrote an article published in the issue of September 26, 1959 which contains a description of him at age seventy.

The moment I saw Boucheron and heard his name I thought of “bounce.” Boucher in French means “to cork up.” He is the opposite – he bounces like a cork released from a champagne bottle. For all his 60-plus years his handshake and his footstep are as firm as an athlete’s, and his eyes are as sharp as needles.

We enjoyed a healthy aperitif before a lunch of which he ate amply though selectively. The shadow of age does not dim the picture of this dynamic man, and yet his business is being old. One should really say his avocation, for he works for love and not for profit, writing, lecturing, interviewing and broadcasting on how to be a senior citizen and like it as much as he does.

The year 1959 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Radio Club of America, which published a Golden Jubilee Year Book. Captain Boucheron had been a member since 1920. He had been the guest of honor at the annual banquet, December 7, 1945, at the Engineers Club in New York City, where he was also a member. To the Golden Jubilee Year Book, he contributed a brief biography, as did all the members, and a photograph of himself on the SS Camaguey. He notes that he is a member of the Explorers Club in New York City. He had written to the club on April 7, 1943, noting his expedition to Greenland and the fact that he was “speaker of the evening at two meetings of the Washington chapter of the Explorers Club during the present year.”

In 1964, he attended a convention of the American Association of Retired Persons in Rochester, New York as a district representative. While there, he wrote a press release dated “6:00 AM, June 14, 1964.” At the top of the page is an ink drawing by a professional artist of his head and shoulders. In the drawing, he wears a beret and smiles. In the typewritten text, he refers to his “Breton stock,” confuses some dates, rambles, and at the end calls his life a “dream.” Here is an excerpt from the middle.

He returned to civilian life and industry to recoup his fortunes—a little late for that, while his contemporaries made their piles during war time, what with high salaries, bonuses and stock options. Today past 70 and retired to several volunteer jobs, he likes to say he’ll die a pauper. Some of his early coworkers and bosses—Sarnoff, Nicholas, Vogel, and even Hendrickson—wound up near-millionaires. He has no quarrel with that. It was life, and he had a grand time and met some grand people, still meets them at reunions.

How did a well-paid corporate executive end up as a “pauper’? His separation from his wife may have involved a financial settlement. And his boating hobby was expensive. In Greenland Assignment, he comments:

In civilian life during the past twenty years, I’ve owned seven cruisers. I guess I’ve spent for this kind of entertainment a sum total that runs well into a high five figure.

At age seventy-five, he slowed down at last. There are no manuscripts after this year. There are letters, including the one to his brother Jean in Syracuse, New York, dated December 1, 1970. On May 26, 1971, he wrote a one-page letter to his son in a clear, rounded longhand.

Dear Son Pierre Jr.,

Since you are executor to my estate, this is a reminder if not covered in my will, which you may have copy of, after I pass on:

  1. I desire to be cremated and my ashes scattered at sea or wherever convenient for you.
  2. This property at 2813 Bellaire Drive, Fort Wayne, Indiana, has already been sold to my housekeeper, Miss Alice Christine Kinkley, and duly recorded at Allen County Courthouse some years ago.
  3. I still carry a Veterans Administration Insurance policy for $3,000 which premiums I pay each month, with Miss A. C. Kinkley, my housekeeper for the past 20 years, as beneficiary.

Please acknowledge above at your convenience.

With affection for you and yours,

P. H. B. Sr.

    He executed a will on June 17, 1971. It directs the executor to pay “all my just and legal debts, including the expenses of my last illness and funeral,” and bequeaths “all of my estate to Alice Christine Kinkley.” He died on September 29, 1976, age 87, with the cause of death listed as “cardiac standstill.” The United States Navy scattered his ashes at sea. They sent a map of the location to his son, with the American flag which flew on board ship at the time.

His wife Wilhelmina was alive at the time he made these arrangements. He and she were no longer in contact. She lived with us in Schenectady, New York, where Pierre Jr. was an executive with General Electric Company. Around 1971, her physical and mental health declined to the point that my mother could no longer care for her. Wilhelmina was moved to a nursing home in Schenectady. She died in 1979 at the age of 91.  

Electronic technology has raced far beyond what Captain Boucheron knew. What would he make of personal computers, cell phones, the internet, and streaming video? He was not a great inventor or corporate giant. As a “brass pounder,” a writer on radio, and a pioneer in radio and television marketing, he stands for many who contributed. As an immigrant, he represents our multi-ethnic society. And as a naval reserve officer, he exemplifies the American tradition of part-time military service, the citizen-soldier.

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