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Best ever: A life of adventure and heroism
- Cliff Newell
- Lake Oswego Review - News
Lake Oswego's Delmar Calvert is a unique kind of warrior
When you call Delmar Calvert a hero, it makes him uncomfortable.
The 84-year-old Lake Oswego man frowns slightly and says, 'There are probably hundreds of people who don't get recognized who are the true heroes.'
But Calvert has two plaques covered with medals, and if you are persistent enough he will show them to you. Some of them are quite beautiful, and some of them represent the highest medals you can receive for military valor.
They include the Legion of Honor, the highest military decoration in France, and the Croix de Guerre, of which he is the youngest winner in history.
They represent an incredible story: Calvert's career serving in World War II in both the French Army and the U.S. Army, displaying great bravery in both defeat and victory.
It all began when he and his older brother Charles watched the movie 'Beau Geste' in 1938. The brothers were so carried away by the heroics of Gary Cooper and company in this French Foreign Legion epic that they decided they wanted to join the French Foreign Legion. He was a mere 14 ½ years old.
'It was the beginning of all of my troubles,' Calvert wryly noted.
It was also the beginning of seven years of adventure, tragedy, remarkable humor, great danger, and, ultimately, triumph; a career that would make the swashbuckling in 'Beau Geste' look pale in comparison
Soon, Delmar and Charles found themselves at a French Foreign Legion recruiting office in Tunisia, where the doctor/recruiting officer said, 'Why don't you go back home, kid, and get a lollipop.'
Of course, the doctor had every intention of rejecting a boy barely into his teens, but he decided to make it official by submitting Calvert to a test he was sure he couldn't pass.
'They gave me a rifle from the Napoleon era and a bag full of bricks,' Calvert said. 'It was so heavy I could hardly stand up. They sent me on a 20-kilometer march and told me they would consider me for a five-year contract with the Foreign Legion if I made it.'
Incredibly, Calvert did make it. The recruiting officer stopped seeing him as just a punk kid and began seeing him as a genuine recruit.
Calvert remembers, 'He said, 'My son, I pass you. Raise your right hand, swear before God you won't betray France.'
When he placed his hand on the French Foreign Legion flag, Calvert was told, 'You come here to die. We'll send you where you'll die.'
The undaunted teenager and his brother were sent to boot camp in Algeria, where he trained in the deadly art of war and was assigned to a cavalry regiment.
'I was 15 and I felt like a real, real macho soldier,' Calvert said. 'I wanted to charge with my saber. I was so young. It felt like play to me.'
Stunningly, in the summer of 1939, France found itself at war with Nazi Germany. The Calvert brothers were assigned to the 97th Reconnaissance Group for the 7th Army.
'Me and my brother wanted to go to war!' Calvert said. 'We wanted to suffer! In those days, the honor mentality prevailed.'
The German army proceeded to deal France a shocking defeat in 1940, but when it came to honor, Calvert asserted himself with flying colors. He served as an elite gunner and confronted the Nazis as they invaded French villages. In the process he performed feats of bravery that earned him the Legion of Honor and also, at age 15 years and 9 months, made him the youngest person to ever earn the Croix de Guerre.
However, the Calvert brothers and their comrades in arms could not slow down the Germans, who mowed out a path through the Ardennes Forest and went right around the Maginot Line, conquering France in the process.
'The German tanks were fast, like a swarm of ants,' Calvert said. 'Every day there were 3,000 planes.'
Ultimately, Calvert's unit was bivouacked in Tunisia, where he was confronted by a huge dilemma: France was conquered, the Vichy government had submitted to the Germans. The English and United States were sure to invade North Africa.
But Delmar Calvert was an American citizen. He was born there in 1924 and went to France with his family when he was just 3 years old. He looked and sounded just like a Frenchman, but he was a Yankee Doodle Dandy and he refused to fight against his country, even when threatened with punishment by his hard-as-nails commanding officer.
The Allies, of course, did come to Morocco. However, Calvert and six of his fellow Legionnaires, who previously had fought for Republican Spain, had no intention of fighting for Germany. Instead, they worked out a plan to desert and surrender to the U.S. forces.
There is where the comedy part of Calvert's saga started. At the time he had a tremendously thick French accent and spoke little English. Today he hilariously imitates his efforts in declaring his nationality to disbelieving GIs, saying, 'I yam an Americain!'
Unfortunately, his strongest efforts were not convincing to the officers who interrogated him. He tried to impress them with his flamboyant French Army salute and even clicked his heels like a German soldier. That only made things worse.
Calvert remained under suspicion until one day he was unhappily walking the streets of Casablanca.
'Sometimes miracles happen in one's life,' he said.
Calvert's miracle was meeting the Algerian counsel, who had known him since he was a little boy. He convinced the American Army that, yes, Delmar really was an American.
Calvert then actually enlisted in the U.S. Army in Casablanca (brother Charles also later served with American forces), another amazing feat as he was probably the only American to do it there, and adapted to G.I. life with gusto. While his fellow soldiers bitterly complained about their uniforms and food, Calvert felt he was 'treated like a king.'
'I loved the powdered eggs and the canned pork and beans,' he said. 'Today I still like pork and beans. The others would threaten not to eat it. I said, 'This is magnifique!''
Calvert picked up a new nickname. In the French Foreign Legion he was called 'Johnny' for emitting a Johnny 'Tarzan' Weismuller yell while competing on the swimming team. But to the Americans, he was 'Frenchy.'
The last chapter of Calvert's story was the most harrowing. His knowledge of French proved of the utmost value to an Army set to operate in France, and Calvert said, 'I had the honor of being part of the first Special Forces operation.'
It was an honor he earned the hard way, working with the French Resistance and doing sabotage in an area inhabited by 17,000 German soldiers. There was fierce fighting in ambushes, enduring a massive counterattack by the Nazis, hiding in the forests and nearly starving.
Finally, the Allies defeated Germany, France was freed and Calvert's time of fighting and hardship was over.
However, his life was still filled with excitement as he became a champion fencer, earning grand master status in the process, and later became a fencing coach at the highest level, including training Olympic fencers.
For this he earned the lone civilian medal in his collection, the Medal of Youth and Sports - the highest honor that can be achieved in French sports.
Today, Calvert has been a Lake Oswego resident for 16 years ('I really like it here.') and has lost much of the French accent that so baffled American Army interrogators back in 1942.
If you love history and get to talk to Calvert, you are incredibly lucky. He is truly history come to life, in the most entertaining and vivid way possible.
But call him a 'hero?' That he does not like.
Calvert just says, 'I did distinguish myself as a warrior.'
He certainly did. Beau Geste had nothing on Delmar Calvert.