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Even in a World War II Invasion, Proper Punctuation Mattered

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The personal secretary of Gen. George S. Patton, Joe Rosevich (1915-2007), got the job of correcting a sloppily punctuated French-language leaflet that U.S. planes were scheduled to drop over Morocco to reassure the local population.

Of the moment when the punctilious Patton noticed a missing acute (´) in l’amitié, historian Ladislas Farago wrote, “Patton could not have been angrier if someone had forgotten to bring along the medium tanks he needed for the landings at Safi.”

Born in Wilmington, Rosevich was the son of Isadore and Sarah Rosevich, a Jewish couple who, in the pre-war years, lived in a 19th-century brick rowhouse on Kirkwood Street.

After high school, Rosevich went to UD, where he worked on the student newspaper and graduated in 1936. He subsequently took lessons in shorthand at Goldey College [now Goldey-Beacom]. In 1940, Rosevich was teaching school in Prince George’s County, Md.

After World War II, Rosevich would spend most of his career teaching English at New York’s Fashion High School. According to an obituary, he “instilled a zest for life in his students … was well traveled, well cultured and well loved by all who knew him.”

Patton, meanwhile, was itching for battle. Having decided in childhood that he wanted to be a hero, Patton graduated from West Point in 1909. He first experienced war in 1915 against Pancho Villa on the Mexican border. In World War I, he established the first U.S. tank school.

By the spring of 1941—before Pearl Harbor—Patton had already started giving his famous “Blood and Guts” speeches. That April, in an amphitheater at Fort Benning dubbed the “Patton Bowl,” the general declared: “You have to grab ’em by the [censored] and kick ’em in the [censored]. … I am taking this division into Berlin and when I do, I want every one of your tracks to be carrying the stench of German blood and guts.”

Patton got his war. Rosevich got his draft notice. In February 1942, Rosevich’s skill at shorthand brought him to the attention of Patton, who made the 27-year-old his personal secretary.

By autumn, the Americans and English were embarked on Operation Torch, their first joint offensive. The goal was to push the Germans out of North Africa, thereby making the Mediterranean safer for Allied shipping. Three amphibious task forces would land simultaneously in Algeria and Morocco, both French colonies. Along a 240-mile stretch of Morocco’s coast, Patton’s western task force would target Casablanca and two smaller ports to the east and west.

In November, Patton and Rosevich were aboard the USS Augusta, leading a convoy of more than 100 ships carrying 35,000 men. Patton spent much of his time fretting details. A big wrinkle would be the response of the French garrisons. Having surrendered to Germany in 1940, France was now officially its ally, though not an enthusiastic one.

One tactic to ensure a friendly response was showering residents with a leaflet in French and Arabic, assuring all that the troops coming ashore were friendly and American. The Americans-only part was a lie. The French hated the English, and were thought more likely to fight if they were known to be present.

Approaching the Morocco coast, Patton—who prided himself on his mastery of French—asked to review the leaflet. He was handed this: “Fidele a l’amitie traditionelle et seculaire du gouvernement et du peuple des Etats Unis pour la France et pour I’Afrique francaise du Nord une grande armee americaine debarque sur votre sol.” He hardly got past the first few words.

“Goddamn it!” screeched Patton. “Some goddamn fool in the States forgot to put the accents in this thing. Here!” He pushed the leaflet under his intelligence specialist’s nose. “In fidele the accent grâve is missing from the middle E and the accent acute is left off the E in l’’amitie.”

Patton told the man to get cracking.

“Get a bunch of your men and put them to work! Let them put the accents where they belong or none of these goddamn leaflets will be dropped. Or do you expect me to land on French soil introduced by such illiterate calling cards, goddamn it?”

The intelligence officer found Rosevich, who performed his first operation in the face of the enemy. Rosevich didn’t speak French but, by consulting reference books, got the work done in seven hours. In truth, the first troops were already ashore when the leaflets fell on Casablanca.

But, thanks in part to a resourceful English major, the war was won.

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