Lieutenant Sonia Vagliano: A Memoir of the World War II Refugee Crisis

  • Published

Lieutenant Sonia Vagliano: A Memoir of the World War II Refugee Crisis by Sonia Vagliano Eloy, translated by Martha Noel Evans. University Press of Kentucky, 2022, 266 pp.

Lieutenant Sonia Vagliano is a gripping memoir about a young French American woman’s experience as a volunteer in Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Army during the last two years of World War II. Author Sonia Vagliano Eloy provides a vivid personal account of her time in the war for which her distinguished service earned the Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre.

Vagliano Eloy wrote and published her memoir, originally titled Les demoiselles de Gaulle, 1943–1945, in France 40 years after her experiences. In 1982, her work won a prestigious French award for best memoir of the year and was hailed as being the first book of its kind to capture the role of women embedded within the armies of the war. Unfortunately, since that time, her account remained largely unnoticed until her editor and translator, Martha Noel Evans, discovered it and had it published in English in 2022. The result is a wonderful, firsthand account of the heroic and dedicated women enabling Allied efforts while in harm’s way during World War II.

Vagliano Eloy initially attempted to have her memoir published in the United States. She wrote her account in English using the present tense in hopes that it would be picked up for an American television series. Unfortunately, television producers missed out on the opportunity to air an amazing story with all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. Using her own experiences, Vagliano Eloy shines a spotlight on the women’s section of the Mission Militaire de Liaison Administrative (MMLA) of the Free French Army. The women of the MMLA deployed from England just days after D-Day in June 1944 to assist the Allies in taking care of the millions of Europeans displaced by the destructive effects of the war.

Vagliano Eloy underscores the often-overlooked contributions of the women of the MMLA by documenting her exploits in the war across four chronologically arranged action-packed parts. Her story begins in September 1943, as she is convoyed from the United States to England during the latter part of the Battle of the Atlantic where it is reported that a dozen ships within her convoy were sunk by German U-boats. Once in England, Vagliano Eloy describes her reception, living conditions, and training experiences. Here she encounters an avalanche of bureaucratic hurdles, gender inequalities, parochialism, and cultural stereotypes from within her ranks all while under aerial threat, to include V-1 attacks, from the Germans.

The second part of her story begins two weeks after D-Day in Normandy, as she portrays her team’s work establishing multiple refugee camps across France while trailing dangerously close behind the Allied offensive. She depicts the burdens of this task, taking great care to outline the planning and logistical considerations as well as her team’s innovative problem-solving to overcome enduring bureaucratic and supply challenges. Additionally, she eloquently describes the dangers that her team faces as they work near the front lines of combat. On one such occasion, she finds herself near Saint-Lô during Operation Cobra where a devastating friendly fire aerial bombardment resulted in the death of Lieutenant General Leslie McNair, the highest-ranking American officer to be killed in the war. At another point, she becomes the victim of a Nazi kidnapping plot, from which she ultimately escapes.

Part three of the memoir spans late 1944 through early 1945, when Vagliano Eloy enjoys some recuperation time in Paris along with a sense of the war being over. Shortly thereafter, this optimism is dashed as she and her team become trapped while setting up a refugee camp in Verviers, Belgium, the northernmost point of Germany’s surprising final counteroffensive during the war. The final part of Vagliano Eloy’s story takes readers through May 1945, where she continues to follow the Allied offensive, establishing refugee camps behind their lines, ultimately crossing the Rhine River into Germany on a pontoon bridge built next to the famous Remagen Bridge. Her journey culminates at the Buchenwald concentration camp, where she becomes the first woman officer to enter the camp. At Buchenwald, she is given the responsibility of leading her team in repatriating the prisoners found there. What follows is her heart-wrenching account of Nazi atrocities and the perseverance of a small team working to save as many lives as possible, despite persistent hardships and resource shortfalls brought on by an unplanned for and unexpected mission.

At times, readers may find themselves thinking that Vagliano Eloy’s exploits border on fantasy, as she is seemingly enmeshed in the most dramatic and famously documented events of the last two years of World War II in Europe. Fortunately, Evans, as the memoir’s editor, does an excellent job of validating their authenticity through her research, which took her to American and French archives and museums to find firsthand accounts and published sources of the events described.

Another area that stands out is the verbal harassment Vagliano Eloy endures from fellow female colleagues, female superiors, military officers, and even the displaced people she encounters. While ever-present throughout her story, it is possible she unconsciously uses and potentially embellishes these experiences as the motivation to persevere in extremely difficult circumstances throughout the war.

Lieutenant Sonia Vagliano is a story that deserves a wide readership. Evans should be commended for finding this hidden gem and highlighting the significant accomplishments and contributions of the women of the Free French Army during World War II. This memoir will find broad appeal across many audiences. General readers will be engrossed in its action, romance, and overall plot. Historians will find a useful starting point from which to expand research on an overshadowed aspect of women’s roles in World War II. Military planners and civil affairs specialists would do well to consider the challenges Vagliano Eloy faced and the lessons she learned as they develop plans to care for, feed, and relocate people displaced during crisis and contingency operations. Finally, Hollywood writers and producers may read this story and be pleasantly surprised to find the makings of the next Unbroken within its pages.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric J. Mehrtens, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."