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Australian `white mouse' was a guerrilla to Nazis

Selling her war medals did not endear her to countrymen, though. INTERVIEW

ON Feb. 29, 1944, young Australian Nancy Wake parachuted into the mountains of France, wearing a silk blouse under her overalls and high heels bandaged to her feet. In her pockets were revolvers; her handbag held maps of bridges to blow up on D-Day.

``Why high heels?'' she responds, staring incredulously at a reporter sitting in her suburban apartment 50 years later. ``You can't very well go into town with Army boots on, can you?''

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Of course not.

Nancy Wake (her married name is Nancy Forward) has lost none of the tartness and courage that won her a shoulderful of medals from three countries for her work in the French Resistance. She planned to attend the D-Day celebrations in Paris - minus her medals, which she has just sold.

Before the war, Wake was a freelance journalist, enjoying the high life of Paris, marrying a wealthy Frenchman, and moving to Marseille. On a trip to Vienna, what she saw of the Nazis' degrading treatment of Jews propelled her from a fun-loving housewife to a saboteur at the top of the Nazi hit list.

In her autobiography, ``The White Mouse'' (Macmillan Australia, 1985), she says of the early days, ``Back in Paris, I would think of all the chaos in Germany. But what could an inexperienced girl like myself do or hope to achieve when so many brilliant, well-informed men had failed to make an impact on the outside world?''

Her involvement came incrementally: first it was smuggling documents; then helping downed Allied fliers escape to neutral Spain. Later, she trained in London as a secret agent and saboteur. After parachuting back into France, she helped the 7,000-strong Maquis (guerrilla resistance fighters) in the mountains and arranged the supply of money and arms from Britain.

The Nazis dubbed her the ``White Mouse.'' In their futile efforts to find her, they tortured and killed her first husband, Henri.

Once she traveled through German lines on a stolen bicycle with no license and no identity cards to get a radio transmitter. She cycled 500 kilometers (about 300 miles) in 72 hours, and at the end, had to be lifted off the bike.

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``I got through the German lines because I looked innocent and polite, you see,'' she recalls, taking a bite of homemade brioche. ``And they were holding up everybody. I went through with a little string bag on the end of my bicycle with a couple of leeks or carrots, and I [was taken for] just a little housewife.''

Wasn't she ever afraid?

``I was never afraid,'' she says, firmly. ``Never. Why should I be afraid of a situation? Afterward you might say, `Ah, that was a close call.' But your reaction has got to be good.

``If you're going to be frightened and shivering, you'll never get away with anything.''

While much of her work with the Maquis involved unloading crates of weapons and supplies air-dropped by the Allies, she also fired those weapons. At one point, she threw a grenade into a dining hall filled with Nazis.

But the war had its lighter side for Nancy. At one point she had the Maquisards commandeer a bus so she could sleep in it.

``I said to this lovely young man, I'm sick of this ground! I want a bus! So the men started stopping buses and making the people get off. It had to be one where the two back seats faced each other.

``They took the fourth one. I don't know what happened to the people. They had to walk, I suppose. Those poor people,'' she says with sympathy. Then she starts to laugh.

Wake put a mattress over the two back seats, used a parachute for sheets, and voila!

In addition, each night she'd shed her grimy, mannish uniform for a blue or pink satin nightgown.

In the autobiography and in person Wake is outspoken, even fierce, and possesses a great gusto for life. One official document said ``her irrepressible high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her.''

But she is, as they say in Australia, ``tough as old boots.'' Her decision to sell the war medals given to her by the French, British, and American governments thrust her into the public klieg lights. People here thought she was terrible to sell her war medals.

She decided to sell, she says, because she and her second husband, John Forward, have no heirs. That was interpreted as her being too broke to go to celebrations of the 50th anniversary of D-Day in France. She's been trying to quell that rumor ever since.

``I've been planning to sell those medals long before I'd decided to go to the D-Day celebrations,'' she retorts. ``People have been sending me money, which I've had to send back.''

THE medals, auctioned by Sotheby's in Melbourne in May, brought $156,000 (Australian; US$110,760), the second-highest price ever brought for war medals. They were purchased by the Returned Services League, which put out a public appeal for funds to keep the medals in Australia. They will be donated to the Australian War Memorial.

Why she didn't bequeath the medals to the War Memorial may have something to do with the fact that Australia is the only Allied country that didn't give her a medal. The reasons are unclear now; perhaps it was because she was fighting for the British Army, not the Australian - or because she was born in New Zealand. She thinks the decision was driven by politics.

Whatever the reason, the omission, which didn't bother her in the beginning, over the years has become a sore point. She says she would not accept any award by the Australian government now.

The current Labor government would like to see a way through the impasse. An aide to Minister for Veterans Affairs Con Sciacca says the government has ``had no shortage'' of people ask `` `How come we're not helping Nancy Wake?'

``The answer, unfortunately, is we would like to,'' he says. ``You can't help but agree that there was an extraordinary woman who deserves recognition.

``But after having said that, the only thing as a government we can do today is to keep the door open and say we are more than happy to talk.''

Wake has been given another kind of honor - one that delights her.

``I'll tell you something absolutely wonderful,'' she says, in a quicksilver shift out of annoyance: Some fans in New South Wales want to name a race horse the ``White Mouse.''

``I was thrilled pink. The woman says the horse is very naughty, and I said she takes after me. Don't you think that's gorgeous?

``Lots of funny things happen to me. So I don't lead an uninteresting life,'' she concludes.

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