"Odette Le Pendu" by John A. Kerner, M.D.
From "San Francisco Heroes I Have Known" by John A. Kerner, M.D. Decorated Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in November 2007, John lives in San Francisco, CA.
"If you were to meet Odette Le Pendu today, you might find it difficult to believe that this pleasant little lady, not more than five feet tall, was a hero of the French Resistance during WWII.
Odette’s parents moved to San Francisco in the 1920s. They had heard good things about it from relatives, the Boudin family, who owned and operated a famous bakery in the city. There, Odette was born in the French Hospital 92 years ago. She grew up as a typical American girl, though she spoke with a slight French accent.
She had completed the first part of the ninth grade at Presidio Jr. High, when her parents decided to return to France. They were hardly settled in Paris when confronted by the fact that the Nazis were overwhelming the French army. They moved to Caylus, a small city in Vichy France, 44 km. north of Mantauban. There, Odette was horrified to see the Gestapo’s real power. The first evidence was when some men, accused of being sympathetic to the Resistance, were hanged in front of the Prefecture and left to rot. Her parents then sent her to Toulouse, where she spent two years at the Lycée. But, worried about her living in German territory, her parents wanted her back home and, at 18, she rejoined them.
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- Lors de la minute de silence en mémoire des victimes des attaques à Paris du 13 novembre, avec la Consule Générale de France à San Francisco, Pauline Carmona.
One day, a family friend asked her to take a message on her bicycle. She was a bit fearful because German soldiers in the area often confiscated bicycles, and if the owner refused to give it up, they were often shot. Odette was a small teenager and she was not bothered. Actually, that was a trial run. She was offered a chance to join the French Resistance and she accepted. The local faction was the Mithridate, one of the most important underground networks of more than 1,600 agents who gathered military intelligence in support of the Allied operations.
Since Odette was fluent in English and French, she soon became a liaison and an interpreter for radio operators of the Resistance. One of Germany’s priorities was to destroy any communications with the Allies and, since radio operations were prime targets, transmitters were frequently moved and hidden.
Odette often rode her bicycle through enemy lines with a transmitter hidden in her basket. The Germans did not suspect a young girl on a bicycle, at least not for while.
One fateful day, Odette volunteered to hide the radio transmitter that her unit was using in her home. Somehow the Gestapo found out and arrested her. She was taken to Toulouse and, for days, was interrogated repeatedly. She could not communicate with anyone, but her mother was determined to find her. She made innumerable calls to people she knew in authority: French, Swiss, American, and even German. In a week, as the Nazis were about to ship Odette off to Germany, her mother was able to get her released through the influence of the Swiss Legation. She moved out of France since she was known there. However, she continued to work for the Resistance until the war ended, which fortunately came soon.
In 1947, she returned to the US. In San Francisco, she met her husband François, a merchant seaman during the war, and they raised two sons. François and Odette later helped form a group of veterans who developed a project to restore the Liberty Ship, SS Jeremiah O’Brien, one of the last of its kind that was tied up in San Francisco Bay. Their goal was to land it in Normandy in 1994, the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, where it was preserved as a memorial to those who provided supplies for the invasion.
In 2003, the French awarded the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor to Odette for her bravery during the war. Even now in her 90s, she continues to find people she considers heroes. I think she helped find me to receive the Legion of Honor from President Sarkozy when he came to the US in 2007. She is a member of the American Society of the French Legion of Honor and has often written for it. More recently, the French Government decided that Odette deserved a much higher rank, Officier of the French Legion of Honor. A true hero, Odette was bestowed that important and beautiful medal on July 10, 2013."
(Published in ASFLH Newsletter / December 2015, Vol. 22 No. 4)