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Ex-ACU president remembers 1944 liberation of Paris

From the Abilene Reporter-News

By Jason Sheehan, Reporter-News Staff Writer

August 29, 2005

Fortune found Abilenian John Stevens 61 years ago today.

On Aug. 29, 1944, Stevens, a U.S. Army chaplain, and other soldiers from the 28th Infantry Division marched through Paris to celebrate the liberation of the French capital. During their march through the City of Lights, the soldiers were snapped in one of the most famous photographs from World War II.

Like a good soldier, Stevens was front and center. "I don't know how it happened, but I ended up in the front row," said a grinning Stevens, 87. "I thought we looked pretty good."

Stevens, who later served as Abilene Christian University's president from 1969 to 1981, said his division was ordered to march through Paris as a way to celebrate the newly freed country.

"The French people had been under German control for so many years. They felt for the morale of the French people, they needed a celebration," Stevens said.

Stevens said his division marched to Paris the night before the parade after spending a month in the trenches and badly needing a bath. Before marching through Paris, Stevens said the division was given clean uniforms, which "was a pretty big deal."

The fresh duds were captured in the picture. During the march, Stevens said a million French cheered on the American soldiers.

And, "good-looking girls were coming up (to us) with candy bars," he said.

Stevens said he has another unusual claim to fame.

On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Germany, Stevens said he and some fellow soldiers entered Germany to stake out enemy forces.

"I didn't do it out of courage," he said. "It was luck."

The next day, U.S. forces crossed the Belgian border and invaded Germany, Stevens said.

Stevens said he believed he was the first American chaplain to enter Germany during WWII. Still, he didn't want to make that suggestion unless he had proof.

He said he contacted the Office of the Chief of Chaplains for the U.S. Army to validate his claim. They told him they did not have records, and could not officially tell him he was the first.

Stevens turned to a friend, Charles Potter. Potter was a congressman, and later a senator from Michigan. Stevens had counseled Potter during WWII when Potter stepped on a land mine and lost both of his legs.

Potter, Stevens said, told him to go ahead and make the claim and then see if anyone has proof to the contrary.

And now, years later, "I'm still claiming I was the first American chaplain in Germany," Stevens said with another grin. "No one has ever called me a liar."

View story with photos on Reporter-News Web site (free registration required).

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