For Daniel Guiet, the tin bread box that traveled with his family wherever they moved was a box full of mysteries.
And then one day, he had the chance to open it, discovering inside some of the tools of his father’s trade: a .45 automatic with five full clips, small knives, photos, a length of wire with a wooden handle at each end, papers, passports and identification cards that had his father’s picture on them but with different names.
Turns out, Jean Claude Guiet, an American citizen, was a member of a clandestine, four-person Special Operations Executive commando team that worked behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France during World War II.
Daniel Guiet’s book, “Scholars of Mayhem: My Father’s Secret War in Nazi-Occupied France,” co-written with Timothy K. Smith, is the story of the time Jean Claude spent in France, helping the French Resistance fight the Germans.
And what a story it is. Even for those who may not have stacks of war books piled on their nightstands, “Scholars of Mayhem” will quickly draw you in: Jean Claude, along with his fellow SOE “circuit” members Philippe Liewer, Violette Szabo and Bob Maloubier, experienced things some of us only see in the movies – gunfights, being snatched by the enemy, receiving supplies in tiny parachuted cannisters dropped from planes and hearing the ominous rumble of a German truck (“feldgrau”) bearing down on a hiding spot.
Guiet said Jean Claude started writing his story when he was in his 70s and Daniel gave him a laptop. In the beginning, it was simply supposed to be a story about his life for the grandkids, but it turned into something else.
“We knew that there was a story there. It had come over in my teenage years or so; there’d be a little reference to, ‘Hey Dan, if you get in a fight, don’t make a fist with a closed fist, use open hands and go for the eyes.’ And it was like, ‘How did he know that?’ My image of him was this gentle, quiet, intellectual constant reader, chess player – how does he know that?” Guiet said. “Every now and then there’d just be a little something that would slip out. And then it was, as I got older, ‘How come I had such a unique childhood?’ Traveling all over to places people never went to back then. And it started to fall into place. At one point, he mentioned that he’d had something to do with the French Resistance. And that was it. ... there were just these building blocks, and then it started kind of seeping out a little bit.”
Guiet said his father wouldn’t – and couldn’t – talk about his time in France because of the Official Secrets Act; the work he did was still classified.
“It didn’t get declassified until 1998, but before then, SOE and OSS had burned intentionally most of their files, they weeded them out and sorted, so what was left were time sheets, personnel records, an application, bureaucratic, administrative stuff,” he said. “That’s what was in most of the files, so tracking down the factual evidence of what really occurred was a rarity.”
For Guiet and Smith, maintaining the integrity of Jean Claude’s story was the top priority.
“One of the things that Tim and I both wanted to incorporate was not to make it kind of a Rambo, macho, glorified war story because, No. 1, is we wanted it to be just the truth,” he said. “One of the benefits that Carol (Guiet’s wife) and I had was that we actually met a number of the survivors in person, and the characters that we met were just these broad-ranging, brilliant people. They were the survivors, so they had been through a lot, but they were uniquely interesting.”
Guiet, who moved to Durango about 30 years ago, is not a writer by trade. A businessman who began his career as associate director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood, he began his collaboration with Smith in a fairly roundabout way: He and his family have a house in the French village Nevy-sur-Seille, where they knew a woman who married a man who had worked with Smith at Fortune magazine.
“You’ve got to pinch yourself and make sure it’s real,” he said. “I was looking for an editor, someone who could clean it up, put a frame around it, whatever it needs. Tim was available. He and I hit it off, and I sent him a copy of my manuscript.”
For Guiet, the most impactful story in “Scholars of Mayhem” was the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, where Germans killed 642 civilians in a single afternoon on June 10, 1944.
“I know my father went there, and he would never talk about that. I could get him to talk about most things in the early 2000s, but I couldn’t draw him out,” he said. “He would just very quietly and very politely change the subject without answering the question, and we would go someplace else in the conversation.”
Guiet said Jean Claude was there within two days of the massacre and witnessed the destruction of the village.
“I kind of like the story in a way because he and some of the Spanish Republicans who were guarding them – he was the only SOE guy that went in, hiked over there to Oradour, snuck in because the Nazis had just left, and it was still smoldering and just repugnant beyond imagination,” he said. “And yet, he took pictures. And those pictures were some of the very first pictures the French ever saw of the massacre.”
And while “Scholars of Mayhem” details the actions of a long-ago war, Guiet said the story holds lessons for today.
“I think because the intelligence agencies in America have been really lambasted, and I obviously have no current connections to them, so I don’t know the here and now, but I know the history; I know the personalities. The integrity, the bravery – like Bob Maloubier, he formed what is now the French equivalent of the CIA, he risked his life for 15 years. My father ... you can see the toll it took on them. But what they did for their countries, and what made the alliances that we have had until recently and that now are under strain or gone, gave American post-World War II, an opportunity to be what it is.”
“Scholars of Mayhem” is set for a June 3 publication date, and two more books are planned about Jean Claude’s life: The second will cover his second mission in Burma and China, and the third will be about his 13 years in the CIA during the Cold War, Guiet said.