"The GIs had a preconception of France as -- as one journalist put -- a gigantic brothel," said Roberts. "And in fact Hitler also called France the brothel of Europe."
In her book, Roberts writes that D-Day unleashed "a veritable tsunami of male lust" on French villages and towns like Le Havre.
"At one point the mayor wrote the colonel and said, couldn't we have a controlled brothel by the military base?" said Roberts. "Because the GIs were literally having sex everywhere -- in the parks and cemeteries and abandoned buildings."
But brothels were declared off-limits to American troops.
In a "Dear Ike" letter protesting that order, General George Patton wrote, "It is futile to attempt to go against human nature." General Charles Gerhardt, arguing that his troops "had been in combat for a hell of a while" and that "certain facts must be faced in this business," opened a bordello in the port of Cherbourg, but was ordered to shut it down.
As for Paris? Or what Roberts called a "lean, mean sex machine."
"Well, the GIs often went on leave," she said. "That was the place to go in the winter of '44-'45 and, the GIs only had 48 hours and they were not going to Paris to go to the Louvre. They were going to Paris to visit the brothels."
Through it all, American GIs were perhaps the best-behaved soldiers of World War II.
"There are 12,000 charged with felonies in Europe in 1944 and '45;" said Atkinson. "That's out of an army of several million."
Atkinson has now written three books chronicling American soldiers as they fought across Europe and North Africa. In a sense, he has spent the past 14 years living with American GIs as they pressed forward in the face of death and killed time in the months of occupation.
"The notion that all the brothers were valiant and all the sisters were virtuous is nonsense," said Atkinson. "That's not the way it works in a war. We should know that whether it's a war that happened 70 years ago or whether it's a war that's underway now, war really flays open the soul, and it makes good people do things that they wouldn't do had they not been subjected to the stresses of war."
And we should know that more than 9,000 of the Americans who came ashore at Normandy lie buried in France.
For more info:
- "The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945" by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt); Also available in eBook format
- "The Liberation Trilogy" (Author's website)
- "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France" by Mary Louise Roberts (University of Chicago Press); Also available in eBook format
- Mary Louise Roberts, University of Wisconsin