The U.S.. State Department trembled last week for fear that the still great fleet of Vichyfrance would be handed over to the Axis. And all its fears were occasioned because a handful of Frenchmen who despise Vichy and all its works had landed in very Gallic fashion on the little American islands, St. Pierre & Miquelon.
One night four steatopygous corvettes waddled along off the coast of Newfoundland, ostensibly bound for Britain. But at dawn they hove to off the salmon-pink igneous rockland of St. Pierre & Miquelon, last island remnants of the once-great French Empire in North America.
As the tiny flotilla moved in battle line toward the still-sleeping village of St. Pierre, a lone bristle-bearded Breton sailor ran down to the quai to greet it, his wooden sabots clattering and slipping on the icy streets. In the still morning air the whole harbor could hear him bilingually swearing: "Pétain, le sacre bleu cochon, le old goat!" . . . With trembling hands he lashed the first corvette line to a bollard. "Vive De Gaulle," he shouted. "At last I can say it. Vive De Gaulle!"
"Vive De Gaulle!" Like a voice in a dream the cry rang up the Quai de la Roncière. Sleepy St. Pierrais tumbled out of their steep-roofed plaster houses: women in shawls and white petticoats, fishermen pulling striped shirts over their tousled heads, hastily tying their crimson sashes. Geese honked. Dogs barked. From windows suddenly fluttered homemade De Gaulle flags.
Steel-helmeted, fortified with tommy guns and flasks of vin ordinaire, landing parties took over the village in less than half an hour. Eleven brass-buttoned, picture-postcard gendarmes shrugged their shoulders, helped round up their superior officers. Most administrative officers were told to stay at their posts, but suave Parisian Baron Gilbert de Bournat, Administrator, was called to account before the flotilla's commandant, Vice Admiral Emile Henri Muselier, Commander of the Free French naval forces.
De Bournat had kept the islands alive since France fell, dispensing a $60,000 monthly credit wangled from frozen Vichy funds to feed the one-third of the islands' population on chÓmage (relief). But faithful to Vichy and Marshal Pétain, De Bournat had defied the pro-De Gaulle Societe des Anciens Combattants, amused or confused the islands' totally Aryan population by faithfully publishing Vichy's anti-Jewish decrees, tried to organize a Vichy "Patriotic Youth" movement while 150 of St. Pierre's sons were slipping away to join De Gaullists in Canada. Crowds on the pier cried "Vive De Gaulle" as De Bournat passed. "Vive Pétain" he said.
No less in the Alexandre Dumas tradition was Muselier. He "regretted exceedingly" having to hold a rich merchant, Henri Moraze, as an admitted "Vichy agent," graciously allowed M. de Lort, pro-Vichy manager of St. Pierre's big wireless station, to remain at home with his sick daughter, offered a gift of his own medicinal remedy for the child's bronchial pneumonia. As Vichy's radio station spouted claims that De Bournat had been shot, Muselier granted Madame de Bournat's request to share her husband's cabin aboard the flotilla flagship.