From Foreign Legion to fencing master
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the latest in an occasional series called "Telling Their Stories," which highlights local veterans in partnership with the Lake Oswego Veterans Memorial. Learn more about the organization online at www.loveteransmemorial.org.
Delmar Calvert's story is truly unique, even for members of the Greatest Generation.
An American by birth, a French Legionnaire by choice and then an American soldier by fortune, the 94-year-old Lake Oswego resident's path led him across the world — fighting in global conflicts, mastering the art of fencing and eventually settling down in his native California.
Calvert, who was born in Los Angeles in 1924, moved to France with his mother at the age of 3 before ultimately growing up in the North African country of Tunisia. When Calvert was 14, his older brother Charles joined the French Foreign Legion, a colonial military force made up of foreign nationals who pledged fealty to the Third French Republic.
"Often they were people who fled some sort of political situation or escaped justice in their home country," Calvert says. "I wanted to be with my brother, but I was only 14. So I lied and said I was 17."
According to Calvert, it was easy to fake your identity and join the Foreign Legion. But once you signed up, they took your passport and made you commit to a five-year contract. (The contracts were somewhat bogus, Calvert says, because the Foreign Legion didn't expect you to live; rather, they planned to use their forces as "cannon meat.")
Calvert and his brother were assigned to a cavalry unit on mounted horseback and shipped off to bootcamp in Algeria in 1938 before eventually landing in France during the Nazi invasion. Typically, French Foreign Legion members aren't supposed to fight on European soil, but a wartime exception found the pair fighting off Nazi Panzer tank advances in defense of a small village.
Calvert, assigned as a gunner on an anti-tank gun, was responsible for the destruction of two German tanks during the Nazi advance; he was awarded the "Croix de Guerre" (Cross of War) for his efforts at just 16 years old. His unit was able to hold its defense of the small village, but the Germans were able to take France in just 17 days and an armistice was signed, and the brothers were sent back to Northern Africa.
"Back in Africa, all the French officers were politically to the extreme right, fascists," Calvert says. "They welcomed the Germans and hated the Jews."
During this time, Calvert found his love for fencing by taking classes offered to the commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the Foreign Legion. Fencing came naturally to him, and he soon found he had a gift for the sport. His intent was to return to France at some point so that he could pursue a career as a fencing master.
But the Western Task Force — an Allied effort led by the United States and Great Britain — soon arrived to execute Operation Torch, an assault on French-held Northern Africa that created a second front after the invasion of both France and Russia by the Nazis.
Calvert was in Casablanca, Morocco, at the time, and after just a few days, the entire region was under Allied control.
"I was an American by birth, and I had a paper signed by the American consulate of Tunisia stating that I was an American," he says. "I was not supposed to have that paper, so I deserted the French Army and joined the Americans."
The U.S. Army put Calvert on guard duty to begin with, but he was eventually assigned to a tank division under General George S. Patton's 1st and 2nd armored divisions.
"I had no training to drive a tank, but they made me a driver. I quickly found it was very easy to drive a tank," he says.
Calvert recalls playing baseball with the American troops and realizing that, because he was an expatriate, they didn't expect him to know how to play.
"I had learned baseball from an American missionary in Tunisia when I was a child, so they gave me a glove and put me at first base," he says. "My first at bat, the American pitcher threw the ball and I hit a double."
One particularly interesting anecdote from Calvert's time serving under Patton involves an early morning inspection of the troops by Patton himself. Calvert's sergeant told Patton that he had fought the Germans in France previously, destroying two tanks and earning himself a decoration for his service.
"Patton came up to me and said, in perfect French, 'I fought the First World War as a lieutenant and I know about your regiment. I'm very proud to have you with the American Army.' Then he shook my hand," Calvert says.
Eventually, the U.S. State Department called upon Calvert to join the Office of Strategic Services in Morocco, knowing that a man who spoke fluent French, English, Italian and Arabic could be a real asset. He received special training as a spy and saboteur who would parachute into German-held France, link up with French Resistance soldiers and teach them how to use American weapons that were being dropped in the countryside.
He remembers one particularly scary situation in the town of Grenoble in southeastern France. There, Calvert worked with the French Resistance to set an ambush that killed a large number of Nazi soldiers. The Germans took exception to the ambush and stationed 17,000 soldiers around their position in the town, forcing Calvert to go into hiding while he waited for U.S. forces to work their way up the Rhone River so that he could escape.
He was eventually forced to retire from field operations, he says, and was sent back to O.S.S. command in Morocco.
Calvert was discharged from military service in 1946 as a U.S. Army corporal. He moved to California, where he taught fencing before using his G.I. Bill benefits to attend the DePaul University Sherwood Conservatory of Music, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1955.
He returned to Los Angeles and continued to teach fencing at the Los Angeles Athletic Club for many years — where he was affectionately nicknamed "Maestro" — before being recruited to coach fencing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1965, the National Fencing Coaches Association of America awarded him an American Master's Degree.
Before his retirement in 1991, Calvert was the personal coach for 17 national fencing champions and nine silver medalists. Because of his excellent record, he was asked to coach several national teams, including the U.S. Olympic squad.
Calvert and his wife Irene, who passed away a little more than a year ago from pneumonia, eventually left Santa Cruz and moved to Mt. Angel in retirement. After Irene's death, Calvert came to Lake Oswego, where he resides with close family friend Corrie Klein.
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