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September 01, 2014

Legal Lore: A Deserter in France: The Strange Case of Private Wayne E. Powers

Fred L. Borch

In March 1958, French police discovered a man concealed under the stairs in a home in Mont d’Origny, France. The man was Private Wayne E. Powers, an American soldier who had deserted from his unit in December 1944. Since that time, Powers had been hiding out in France and, over the next 13 years, had fathered five children with the French woman who owned the home in which he was discovered. What follows is the story of Private Powers’ 1958 trial by court-martial for desertion and its rather surprising aftermath.

Born in Chillicothe, Missouri, in March 1921, Wayne Eldridge Powers had worked as a farmer prior to being drafted in May 1943. After completing basic training, he had shipped out to England in early 1944 and landed in Normandy, France, a few days after the D-Day invasion. As Powers later told Army criminal investigators, he had been working as a truck driver for five or six months when, while on his way to an Army depot, he had picked up a hitchhiker wearing an American uniform. According to Powers, this hitchhiker later robbed him—at gunpoint—of both his truck and its contents.

Sometime later, apparently unable to find his truck company in order to rejoin it, Powers started hitchhiking toward Mont d’Origny, a small town near the Belgian border. The previous month, Powers had met this “dark-haired French girl” named Yvette Bleuse in a bar in the town, and, although Powers spoke no French and Yvette spoke no English, “she gave him a woman’s smile after months of murderous combat.” As a result, when Powers showed up at Bleuse’s door in Mont d’Origny about one week before Christmas 1944, while the Battle of the Bulge was raging and his fellow Americans were dying in the cold, she took him into her home. The two lived together for the next 13 years.

During this time period, Bleuse worked at a factory to support Powers and the five children they had together. As for Powers, he “remained in the house during the daytime” and only went out at night “for a walk and some fresh air.” Occasionally, the French police would visit the Bleuse home, as there were rumors that an American deserter was living there. Powers would avoid these gendarmes by hiding in a secret compartment under the stairs in the home.

The French police eventually found Powers and turned him over to U.S. military authorities in March 1958. Army criminal investigators asked him why he had not returned to military control when the war ended in 1945. Private Powers explained that he “was scared.” He also said that if he had given himself up to the American authorities, this would have made his “companion” and “children whom I love very much . . . unhappy.”

In August 1958, Powers was tried by a general court-martial for desertion. The proceedings were quite short because Powers’s two defense lawyers had advised their client to enter into a plea bargain. In return for pleading guilty, the Army agreed to reduce any jail sentence Powers might receive from the jury (which did not know about any plea agreement) to a maximum of six months. Powers was no doubt happy to have the benefit of his bargain when a military jury sentenced him to imprisonment for 10 years.

From the Army’s perspective, good order and discipline required that Powers be prosecuted. After all, nearly 50,000 Americans had deserted from the Army (and Army Air Force), Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard during World War II, and many had been court-martialed and received lengthy prison sentences for intentionally leaving their units during wartime. But French public opinion—and even some Americans—did not see it that way, and the Powers case became a cause célèbre in both Europe and the United States.

The American embassy in Paris received some 60,000 letters about the Powers case. Newspapers in France and Germany, as well as in the United States, covered the story. Much of the correspondence asked for clemency for the accused so that he could return to Bleuse (whom he now desired to marry) and his five children.

On the other hand, some letters expressed a decidedly negative view of Private Powers. Paul Lutz of Tyler, Texas, insisted that the “ten year sentence was far too light,” and he asked why the Army had made a “deal” with a “cowardly deserter.” Because Powers had deserted during the Battle of the Bulge, Lutz insisted that “some may have died because this man was not there. Yet we are to feel sorry for this man who deserted his comrades and country for a lover.” Another letter, written by Chester Missahl of Duluth, Minnesota, who had soldiered during World War II, described Powers as a “dirty, stinking coward and war-time deserter.”

Although Powers had bargained for a six-month sentence—and was no doubt prepared to serve every day of it—the Army apparently had had enough of him and the adverse publicity surrounding his case. As a result, Powers was released from jail on October 2, 1958. Because the French government had consented to his remaining in France after his separation from active duty, 37-year-old Powers remained on French soil and returned to Mont d’Origny and Bleuse.

So ended the court-martial of the soldier who had deserted and hidden in France for more than 13 years. But what happened to Wayne E. Powers? While the record of trial does not answer this question, he apparently did marry Bleuse two years after his release. The couple also had a sixth child together. It seems highly likely that Monsieur and Madame Powers lived out the remainder of their days together in Mont d’Origny, France.

Fred L. Borch

The author is the regimental historian and archivist for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, U.S. Army.