On the day Paris was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, a young American soldier nabbed a souvenir of epic proportions: He took home the French flag that hung from the Arc de Triomphe, a symbol of the end of four years of struggle and shame.
Six and a half decades later, the aging veteran has given the flag back to the city of Paris.
Officials from Paris City Hall took possession of the 12-meter (13-yard) tricolor flag Saturday in a ceremony in southern France, a step in its unusual journey from New York state back home to Paris. The American veteran remains anonymous, too ashamed to come forward.
French officials have no intention of scolding him: They have only thanks and kind words for him, pointing out that he once risked his life for France.
"I'm infinitely grateful," Catherine Vieu-Charier, deputy to the mayor of Paris, told The Associated Press. French historian Christine Levisse-Touze insisted his act couldn't be considered a theft.
"If an American GI wanted to take home a souvenir, I'd say there was nothing reprehensible about that, it's an act you can easily understand," said Levisse-Touze, director of a Paris museum with exhibits on the city's liberation.
Levisse-Touze is studying the flag to verify its authenticity, but she said it appears to be the real thing, based on comparisons with archive footage and based on the straps used to tie it to the monument. The cotton flag is still in excellent condition and has been carefully preserved.
Paris firefighters in the Resistance hung the flag on the Arc de Triomphe on Aug. 25, 1944. After Gen. Philippe Leclerc's 2nd Armored Division, backed by the Americans, rolled into Paris, the occupiers surrendered, ignoring Hitler's order to demolish much of the city.
The flag quickly disappeared, and its absence was barely noticed during the tumult. Levisse-Touze believes a different, larger French flag was hanging under the Arc de Triomphe the next day, when Gen. Charles de Gaulle led a victory parade down the Champs-Elysees.
The flag didn't resurface until 2008, when Armand Lourdin, a French chef who has lived in the United States for three decades, was cooking for a group of U.S. veterans he had gotten to know in his job at a private club in Chappaqua, New York. After dinner, the veterans sent for him.
"Everybody was standing up, they had opened up the flag and they were all singing the Marseillaise in French — they had learned the words," Lourdin told the AP by telephone from his home in New York. One of the men told him that he had taken the flag as Paris was liberated, and asked Lourdin to carry it to France on his upcoming vacation.
Lourdin turned it over to the town where his relatives live, Chandolas, in southeastern France, sparking the long process of checking its authenticity. In Saturday's ceremony, French firefighters hung the flag from the town hall.
Afterward, local mayor Alain Mahey entrusted the flag to Paris officials. There is no official protocol for folding a French flag, Mahey said, but this one was sent back to Paris folded into a small triangle, American-style.