Betty Boop and the Wing Walker:
Chateauroux drew the attention of acid-penned cartoonist Jake Schuffert, whose notorious latrine humor delighted GIs while driving more than a few base commanders to red-faced apoplexy. One of them even had his cartoons banned from the base. In this case, a Schuffert character paid sarcastic homage to Al Capp’s Senator Phogbound. Stepping from an Air Force transport, a fat, rumpled, swollen-nosed politician addresses assembled reporters at the CHAS air strip with a statement that displayed both his bumptiousness and ignorance. “I’m going to investigate the high living of the troops overseas. Why, I even hear some of them are living in a chateau at Roux.”
While there were certainly chateaus available to Americans in and around Chateauroux, two that will be discussed at length in this chapter, it was basically middle class living accommodations made available by the military that made American airmen and their families feel they had never left the United States. This was an era of innocent-boy-meets-girl romances, unquestioned parental wisdom, fair play and unlimited horizons if you played by the Golden Rule. And for the kids, these rock-solid assurances were supported by a print and movie cartoon industry that extolled simplistic fun even when the storylines were violent. The good guys always won.
When cartoon pioneer Max Fleischer created Betty Boop in 1930, he had no idea that he had given birth to a character that would become the most enduring sex symbol in cartoon history, still admired and lusted for in the 21st century....
Boopy Forman was the incarnation of Betty Boop. Her husband, Brigadier General Robert “Red” Forman with a chest full of medals and genuine hero status, was the catalyst that provided the chemistry for a compound composed of diverse elements. There was one constant, an admiration for Forman that bordered on hero worship coupled with a deep fondness for Boopy. The officers at CHAS mixed easily with the town’s rich elite, pursued their pleasures in mansions and on golf courses and ski trips, while having at their disposal a handy four-engine transport. Surprisingly, members spoke openly and with candor when describing escapades that defined officer-class entitlement with little concern about consequences. Their stories told just how bright the glitter of the Golden Ghetto could be when privilege applies the polish.
When General Forman took over command of the 1602d Air Transport Wing on September 29, 1961, including the 322d Air Division, he and Boopy also laid the foundation for a clique that existed in parallel universes. In one orbit, its members performed their military and civil service duties with pride and diligence; and in the other, they raised fun and games to a level that would make denizens of the legendary “Animal House” envious. Forman was 51; Boopy was 38. Call it magnetism or charisma; they were a team that attracted much younger men and women. “First of all, General Forman was a unique guy,” said John Riddle, who would retire as a major general in the Air Force Reserve. “Younger people under his command gravitated to him and Boopy. His energy was boundless. He didn’t sleep a lot, didn’t need much sleep. He was always up and around the base checking on things, and as a result he knew very much what was going on.”
Shortly after arrival at CHAS, there was an incident that made clear to Riddle how and why the Red Forman legend had grown over the years. “The Communist threat was at its height, and I remember one incident in particular at the base that could have become very ugly. General Forman and I were sitting in the back of his light blue staff car, going between the air base in Deols and La Martinerie. When we came to the main gate at La Martinerie, there was a crowd of several hundred Communists blocking the way, shouting slogans. The crowd was so large that it spilled out into the street, making it impossible to drive to the gate.
“There were plenty of anti-American placards, a lot was going on. Because we had come to a standstill, they surrounded the car and began rocking it. General Forman kept his cool. He ordered the driver to keep driving, slow enough so the Communist protestors could get out of the way, but making it clear that we were going to keep going. And that’s what we did, finally making it through the gate.”
Jay Parsons, who succeeded Riddle as Forman’s aide, said: “Red was the most energetic man I have ever known. He was no longer a spring chicken, but he still took stairs two at a time and was always on the go. I asked Red if he would ever slow down, and he said ‘after you’ve been dead for ten minutes you will have all the time you need to catch up on your sleep.’”
Major Donna Hildebrand and her husband, Colonel Floyd C. Hildebrand “Hildy”, transformed the former hunting lodge of Ferdinand de Lesseps in the village of Meunet Planches into a legendary fun house while they were stationed at CHAS. She and Floyd fit naturally into Red and Boopy’s cadre. “Red was kind of gruff and outspoken, but he was always a perfect gentleman to me. For me, he was always a kind of polite, Southern, country gentleman. But I know that if he got angry, someone could really get run over.”
Dozens of photos chronicle what to an outside observer appeared to have been six years of party with interludes of work fitted in so everyone could catch their breath. Boopy was center stage in many of them, most of the time with a big smile on her face and a drink in her hand. She fit in very well with Red, a former wing walking pilot on the carnival barnstorming circuit of the late 1930s. There was also a stint ferrying Lucky Luciano’s prostitutes back and forth between Memphis and Chicago, before Red was coaxed into the Army Air Corps by then Captain William Tunner, who would eventually command the Military Air Transport Service “MATS” as a Lieutenant General. “Red and I were not the typical Air Force West Point couple. I was probably the worst kind of an officer’s wife,” Boopy said. “Because of Red’s rank and position at the base, I was usually the president of the Officers Wives Club and I wasn’t good at it. In fact, I was bad at it. Fortunately, the wife of the base commander took over.
“I really can’t say how much friction there was between me and the other officers’ wives. After all this wouldn’t be something they would talk about openly. I was the general’s wife and I didn’t give a damn. But yes, I’m sure they thought that I was awful. You’d have to talk to one of them to find out.
....The socially acute Formans quickly become involved in Chateauroux’s active upper-crust party scene. Much of the activity revolved around the Balsan family chateau in Chateauroux. The Balsan family, whose fortune came from almost a century of fabrics and textile manufacturing, knew how to party. Etienne Balsan was one of Coco Chanel’s lovers; Lt. Colonel Jacques Louis Balsan married Consuelo Vanderbilt on the rebound after her divorce from Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. It seemed like everyone in the Balsan family loved to travel, loved Paris, and found it hard to turn their back on a good time. Boopy recalled that “the Balsan family had a very large chateau in the middle of Chateauroux. Louis was very pro-American. The family had a lot of buildings around the chateau, and Louis rented them out to Americans. There were a lot of stories about what was going on there, and believe me a lot was going on.”
“Boopy had a great personality; I never remember her being unhappy or despondent,” Donna said. “She had an upbeat attitude and was able to cope with any situation, and she was as cute as can be. Her nickname ‘Boopy’ was a perfect fit. If you remember the cartoon character Betty Boop, that’s who she looked like. She had those big beautiful eyes and cute hair.”
There was nothing conventional about the Formans. They met in Salt Lake City where Red and Boopy’s first husband, Charlie Adams, a pilot under Red’s command, were stationed. “It was then that Red first called me Boopy. It stuck. Everybody calls me that. I met Red when Charlie was off on a mission. Red sent him off again on another mission shortly after we met. And that was it.” Red had adroitly tucked his rival away for the duration, but there was still a war to contend with. Shortly after, Red was sent to Burma. It was another five years before Red and Boopy were married.
By the time the Formans arrived at CHAS, Red’s reputation had preceded him. He was among the pilots who flew the C-47s and C-46s over “The Hump,” a perilous 530 mile flight over the Himalayas that supplied the lifeblood that kept Chiang Kai-Shek’s army alive. In 1948, the Soviet Berlin Blockade began and Forman embarked on probably the most intense airlift planning he had ever undertaken. “Sterling Bettinger (Air Force Major) and I were flying the airlift commander, Major General William H. Tunner, into Berlin and were unable to land since the runway had been temporarily closed because of an accident,” Forman told his Memphis hometown newspaper, Press Scimitar, on June 17, 1966. “When we finally landed, Gen. Tunner kicked us off the plane, told us not to come back until we had devised a safer system that would work. We did.”
The air lift orchestrated by Forman and Bettinger is universally credited with breaking the Soviet blockade and saving Berlin. For their effort, Forman and Bettinger were awarded the Legion of Merit.
In 1950, Forman led the airlift evacuation of 4,600 casualties from the Chosan Reservoir in Korea, a five-day operation that further embellished his “hero” status. Forman gave up his seat on the last C-47 evacuation flight to a wounded Marine. Joining the remaining Marines, Forman fought his way out of the Chinese trap, earning the Silver Star, a cluster to his Legion of Merit, and two clusters to his Distinguished Flying Cross. This was the legendary stuff that transforms a man into a hero.
As John Riddle described the 1602d Air Transport Wing and the 322d Military Air Transport Wing commanded by Forman were not part of the CHAS command structure, but were “tenants” who in effect rented space at the sprawling facility.
“The base was owned by the Material Air Command “MAC”. So they had the responsibilities for being the ‘housekeeper’ for want of a better explanation,” Riddle said. “As the housekeeper, they were responsible for performing all of the functions of the base. As tenants, we utilized office space, sleeping quarters and things like that. The 322d had nothing to do with that except for a small support squadron over at Deols. Our mission was to support MAC planes that were flying into Europe from the States. Basically we were servicing the Department of Defense throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.”
High Level Hi-Jinx
With a virtually independent status at CHAS, Forman was in the unique position to take advantage of the perks that came his way. One of them, a C-118 four-engine Liftmaster, would become an aerial mainstay for junkets. Riddle explained how this gift horse fit so well and could be comfortably saddled for multi-purpose flights.
“It was about the time the Berlin Wall was going up, 1961. With all this going on, General Forman put out the word that he needed a plane. We were given the use of a C-118 for several years. We would get the plane and use it for about a year and a half until it was due to go back for maintenance. When the plane was sent back to McGuire Air Base for maintenance after 300 hours of flight time, they would loan us another plane to take its place.”
A tour of the chateau that would become the Forman home for six years revealed the muted splendor that greeted them in 1961. It was the former mansion of the Guillon family, who had operated one of the largest farm implement companies in Europe. It was a great place for parties as was the isolated former de Lesseps hunting lodge leased by the Hildebrands. When Donna and Hildy inherited the lease to the hunting lodge from Dick and Kay Wood, it had already won accolades.
“It was a great place for parties, a beautiful house,” Boopy recalled. “There was one party that was so boisterous and bad that it still sticks out in my mind. The house had a very large dining room with a huge gold-framed mirror that covered one entire wall and ran from the floor to ceiling. The table was filled with hors d’oeuvres and all kinds of food. Somebody took some food from the table and threw it at the mirror and it stuck. With the group that we had you can imagine what happened next. Before long the entire mirror was covered with splattered food.” Listening to Boopy, it was hard to get your thoughts around the fact that she was talking about high ranking Air Force officers, including a general and lieutenant colonels, as well as high ranking civilians lucky enough to be invited to the melee. “We all liked to party, party hard.”
The hunting lodge satisfied a multitude of tastes. Donna Hildebrand, often described as a most innovative hostess, said: “We had a wine cellar with a couple of tables and the only light was from candles. We found out after a while that when a couple would go down there for some wine, they were taking a lot more time than it took to get wine. We discovered that the wine cellar had become a favorite trysting place, quite romantic.”
The ceiling to wall dining room mirror might have been the most massive piece of wall decor, but the expensive artwork in other rooms offered a bigger selection for creative hi-jinx. “I remember one party in particular,” Riddle said. “Everyone who was there remembers it. Donna contacted the wives of all the officers who were invited and asked them to send her personal pictures. She then cut the faces out of the photos and pasted them over the faces in the portraits that hung all over the chateau. So when you arrived you would find your face pasted over the face of a guy in a hunting scene, for example. This was during the 1960s; everyone drank.”
Nothing was too childish. “Another time, I got hold of a mannequin and put it in the bathtub in the bathroom,” Donna said. “No one was told about this so when the people came up to use the bathroom, the first thing they would see was this strange head peeking out of the bathtub. It startled a lot of the women.” As Riddle recalled, one of the revelers could not let it go at that because it just wasn’t funny enough. “It was in the winter. The dummy started out the night fully clothed on the bed where it was eventually buried under the overcoats of the guests. Later, the dummy was stripped and placed in the bathtub,” Riddle recalled. “Later one of the guys came down wearing the dummy’s clothes, explaining he put them on after spending time in the bathtub watching everybody going to the toilet. Of course, he didn’t do that, but he got a big laugh.”
The second anecdote is multi-faceted, that sums up how far officer class entitlement could be carried. It happened at a fashionable and expensive hotel in Vichy, which had become a favorite weekend golfing destination. Boopy described one incident without a hint of self-consciousness. “I was standing on the balcony of our room at this very nice hotel, and down on the street below me were Jay, my husband, Bob Goggin, and some others in our gang. They were trying to turn over a Volkswagen that was parked in front of the hotel.
“I don’t know why they were doing it, they were all drunk. So in order to distract them before the gendarmes arrived, I began taking my clothes off on the balcony. I did a strip tease. My children can tell you about that because they were with us at the time. I can only guess what they were thinking when I stripped. Yes, I was very much naked. Luckily nothing much happened, the gendarmes arrived. I knew someone would have called them. My husband and the others ran away before the gendarmes got there.”
The drunken zaniness continued into the night. “There was this poor unfortunate man in the hotel elevator,” Kay Wood recalled. “I think he was one of the gendarmes. The elevator was one of those glass ones. Some of the men in our gang fixed it so he could not get out. I don’t know how long he was in the elevator, but he did spend some time helplessly going up and down, while the guys just sat and watched him, drinking and laughing.”
Kay Wood said that there was more than one slice of elevator hilarity that weekend. “I do recall a big ruckus over the hotel’s elevator, and I do mean ‘over’ the elevator. Some of the fellows took control of the elevator and were climbing all over it. They opened the door at the top and climbed out the top of the elevator and began riding it up and down the exposed elevator shaft. Remember these were the old French elevators that were open, and you could see everything. They were made with this filigree wrought iron. It caused quite a ruckus, as you can well imagine.”
......At CHAS, the Officers Club offered the Forman entourage, other officers, NATO members and civilian employees a watering hole designed to satisfy all but the most insatiable. Entire families enjoyed the club’s dinners, dances, musicals like “Guys and Dolls,” anniversaries, and costume parties, while the more permissive parents would allow their kids a pull or two at the slot machines. “We had striptease every two weeks on Friday. The women were not allowed to come, only the officers. Professional stripteasers would come from Paris to do the show,” said Francis Bayard, a longtime bartender at the Officers Club. “This often distracted my French employees from their chores, coming out of the kitchen to take a peek!
“The U.S. officers were different with their families, less strict with their wives and children,” said Bayard, who witnessed “a lot of jealousy between U.S. officers and French officers, especially on the French side. The living conditions and the salary of the French officers were far different, this created tensions. At the club we served Manhattans, Martinis, Pink Ladies and all the different whiskies, scotches, bourbons and cocktails that the French ignored the existence of, the only place you could find these drinks besides the base was in the plush restaurants in Paris.”
In this boozy arena, even a serious drinking problem could easily be reduced to a joke. As described by Jay Parsons, the heavy drinking of Colonel Joseph Nagle, a chief flight surgeon and commander of the 7373rdAFH, was an example of how inebriation could be laughingly accepted. “It was all done in fun, sort of a joke. Joe loved to drink, sometimes too much. So we attached an airplane safety belt up to his favorite stool so he wouldn’t fall off onto the floor.”
“It was very sad to see, very sad,” said Boopy of Nagle’s drinking. There was no evidence that Nagle performed surgery only that he had the title of hospital commander.
It seemed that no matter where you turned at the Officer’s Club, mind numbing elixer could be found. “We had an awful lot of special banquets at the club, and typically the dessert was Baked Alaska,” Club manager Whalen said. ‘The Baked Alaska was pretty big, sometimes with a big party there would be two of them.
“We would pour 100 proof vodka over the Baked Alaska, turn out all the lights, ignite it and then wheel it in on a cart. It was very dramatic,” he added. “One night we did everything right and tried to ignite the dessert, but nothing happened. So I said ‘God damn it, let’s roll it out anyway.’ When it came out it was just a big soggy mess. Nobody was happy. I looked into it and discovered that the cart with the Baked Alaska was next to the dishwashing machines and the French dishwashers had guzzled all of the vodka, two bottles of it, and replaced it with water. So we had a waterlogged cake that nobody could eat, and in the back room four drunk Frenchmen who could hardly stand up.”
For Red, Boopy and their acolytes the Officer’s Club provided yet another avenue for what appeared to be an around the clock need for escape. This did not deter them from their Cold War mission, one that Forman never lost sight of.
Humanitarian aid was rushed from CHAS to Yugoslavia, where an earthquake destroyed 75 to 80 percent of the Macedonian city of Skopje, killing 1,070 people and leaving 100,000 to 200,000 people homeless. Among the supplies aboard the planes dispatched by Forman was a complete field hospital with drugs that quelled an epidemic.
When a bloody civil war broke out during the early 1960s in the Belgian Congo, the United Nations poured in thousands of troops from Ireland, Sweden, Ethiopia and Indian Gurkas. All the Belgians fled the country. The U.S. Air Force was responsible for conducting a massive airlift required to sustain the U.N. forces and feed the beleaguered population. Military supplies, food and medicine flew into Albertville, Elizabethville, and Leopoldville around the clock. It was no great surprise that Red Forman, just as he did in Korea and during the Berlin Airlift, was selected to oversee this dangerous operation.
Forman retired on March 1, 1966, just a few days after returning to the States from Chateauroux. He was killed on Jun 19, 1971, when returning to his Philadelphia area home from the U.S. Open Golf Championship at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Boopy, who had remained home to tend to her sick daughter, explained. "His car was hit broadside. The driver of the other car apparently had a heart attack and his carjumped a median. Red was killed instantly."
Excerpted from "Golden Ghetto: How the Americans & French Fell In & Out of Love During the Cold War" by Steve Bassett. Copyright © 2013 by Steve Bassett. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.