" ... the sky is peppered with German planes bombing the military airfield on the edge of town," her account continues. "The mayor has just given the order for the residents to evacuate the town within one hour. My cousin Mimi and I climb in one of the wagons, not knowing if we will ever see our parents again. We take off under strafing of German planes."
Today, Croes, 90, is safe in
But in 1940, she was just a 14-year-old French girl, often struggling with horrific scenes played out in her home country, occupied by a vicious enemy.
Croes is a different kind of veteran. Her fight during World War II came in finding ways to survive with a fierce dedication to her family, her friends and her countrymen.
"You never knew if you were going to die the next day," she mused, as she sat in her home earlier this week, a pile of photographs nearby. She agreed to speak about those awful times.
"And when you made a friend then, you made them for life, because you were all in the same boat."
In later years, she was urged by friends to write down her story and she did, drawing back on memories over 75 years gone.
This is her story.
From 'Having everything to having nothing'
It is a story of survival, both physical and emotional.
She was born in the city of Juvincourt, in the Picardy region of northern
On that aforementioned day in May, she watched hundreds of
After the mayor ordered the townspeople to leave, her family began a journey to
"When German planes appeared in the sky, everyone took to the ditches or under trees, as they were shooting at the refugees," she wrote. "My mother told me that some people were shot and tended to by other refugees. Some died and were buried on the spot."
The evacuation brought "complete chaos," she recalled. Most of the family journeyed to her uncle's
At first, "we just waited in the apartment, hoping God would save us," she wrote.
She soon found that those who were Jewish or unfriendly to Germans were regularly shot without pause. She recalled a Jewish family who lived a few houses away. When the family saw a truck filled with German soldiers pull up in front of their apartment building, they knew they were about to be taken to concentration camps.
Instead of the humiliation and certain death, they jumped from their top floor apartment windows.
"They had no way of escaping and they died together. We didn't even know their names," she wrote.
She recalled running home from a movie one night -- being able to see movies was one of the few pleasures allowed by the Germans, who edited the films first -- terrified that she would not make it before curfew began. Citizens on the streets after curfew would also be shot as spies, she said.
Her own father was almost shot when confronted by Germans in her hometown. He refused to leave when the evacuation took place. But since her father was a chef, he was retained to cook for German officers -- until he escaped, and made his way back to his family in
Rationing of food and clothing was soon a way of life.
Her mother would stand in lines for hours attempting to buy food, only to find what she needed was gone by the time she got to the front of the line.
"And it would all start over the next day," Croes said. Her mother lost 90 pounds in the first year of the occupation. Hunger was a way of life. Later, her parents would raise rabbits in cages for food.
One of her sisters, still nursing a child and living with her in-laws in a rural area, was able to grow vegetables and send them to the family.
Another sister, ill in a sanitarium with tuberculosis, gave the care of her child to a nanny. She was widowed after her husband died of the same disease and could not care for the child while she was institutionalized.
Croes' father, wanting to see his grandson, was shocked to find the young boy undernourished. His nanny had been selling his ration tickets -- needed to buy food -- on the black market and starving the children under her care. Her father took the boy back to be raised with the rest of the family until the end of the war.
Croes worked hard in her
When one American plane crashed, a group of women who had been trained in first aid went to the airfield to see if they could provide some help, but were turned away by the Germans.
"It was very sad," Croes said. "We couldn't do much, but thought we could so something."
A French resistance soon sprang up after the Germans invaded the country. The group of underground fighters did what they could to sabotage the German effort by blowing up bridges or railroad trains carrying munitions. Often, if Allied soldiers had to parachute, the resistance could get to them before the Germans.
Her Uncle Albert, as well as a sweetheart, Raymond, were both executed by the Germans for their involvement with the resistance fighters.
Another uncle, Marius, lived near the Swiss border and regularly helped French citizens cross into the nearby Alps.
Croes began to work as a secretary for the mayor of the town, who was also in the insurance business. She recalled biking to the rural homes near the town, collecting insurance payments, when bombs would begin to fall and she would take shelter in ditches.
"One time, I was pressed against a tree, I was so scared, I could not speak," she recalled. "A German soldier passing by, nicer than most, asked if I was OK ... I just shook my head."
The townspeople's proximity to the airfield endangered their homes under the almost constant bombings by the Allies. Germans had turned the airfield into one of the largest Luftwaffe fields in
"It was a daily routine of fear and hope of being liberated," she wrote.
For all the fear, she recalled one time when she was able to get back some of her own.
Her boss, the mayor, often had to fulfill German requests for use of vehicles, equipment and manpower when asked. To deny the requests would have certainly meant death.
When one German officer came to the mayor's office asking for some items, she pretended she could not understand him and asked him to draw pictures of what he was requesting.
Although angry, the soldier drew her pictures of what he was seeking and she finally helped him. When the mayor, who had watched the exchange, asked her why she had done that -- he knew she spoke German -- "I told him I would never converse with a German soldier. It was a sweet revenge."
Finally -- the end
The tide of the war in
"People were laughing, crying, clapping, rushing to tanks to embrace the American soldiers," she recalled.
The soldiers began to distribute chewing gum, chocolate and cigarettes to the townspeople who went without for the past several years.
The soldiers apologized for their dirty appearance.
"They looked beautiful, handsome, to all of us," she said. She found out later that those same soldiers died as they met German forces soon after they left to liberate other areas.
She soon met
"Supposedly, I was the one he had been looking for all his life," she wrote with some humor. "Victor was a charmer."
But she cooled a blossoming relationship when she heard he was flirting with a friend of hers. By the time she found out her friend was lying, the pair had gone their separate ways.
She began to work at the nearby camp in the criminal investigation division, where her interpretative skills came in handy. She even met Gen.
"I was making good money ... I had my own driver. They (Americans) treated me like a queen. I loved every minute of it," she said with a laugh.
She met another soldier and fell in love, only to find out he was married with a young child. Throughout it all -- for three years -- she received letters from Victor and their romance began to build again. By this time, Croes had returned to his duties with the Hormel's in
In 1947, she finally decided to marry him. She flew to the
Victor, a native of
And so she did. She also approved of Victor's new bride.
The new bride was taken by the
The Hormel's scooped up the newlyweds and took them with the family to
"It was a highlight of my life," she said.
She also had chances to meet
Life settled in
Croes is 90 but looks far younger.
"I feel good," she said, and is proud she is able to live on her own, in the same home she and Victor shared for many years. Her son lives in
She recalled when her children, just youngsters, would listen to their mother speak of the war and seem unimpressed -- until a day many years ago when the Croes family returned to
Albert had been captured with other resistance fighters. After being beaten and tortured, he and his fellow Frenchmen were given shovels to create a trench alongside a rural garage. When they were done, they were all shot and buried in the trench.
"They had dug their own graves," Croes said.
Today, there is a plaque marking the spot, with the names of the men. When the Croes family visited, an old woman came out of her nearby house to speak with them.
"She asked, 'Did you know one of these men?' " Croes recalled.
Croes told her one of the heroes was her uncle. The woman told her the entire story, since "she had seen it all happen" all those years ago.
Her daughter, listening to the woman and her mother's conversation, was stunned.
"My daughter said, 'Those stories you told us were really true? We thought they were just stories,'" Croes said.
Croes full account of those years can be found at the
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