Keep Your Pants On


One privilege of rank is getting to keep your pants on.

In 1942, Americn Major General Mark Clark was on a top-secret mission in German-occupied Algiers to persuade the French commander not to resist the planned Allied invasion of North Africa, codenamed Operation Torch.

On his way back to the submarine, the general worried that his wet pants (and the two thousand dollars in gold he had in his belt) might drag him down. He turned to the next lowest ranking officer and ordered him to surrender his trousers.

It’s good to be in charge.

French forces had been under German authority since the Nazis had invaded France two years earlier, so it wasn’t clear whose side they would be on. The officers met in an isolated villa on the coast, and the French General Charles Mast agreed to Clark’s plan. If Mast’s cooperation was found out by the Germans, he would have been executed for treason.

The Allied officers had to hide in the basement when French police approached and questioned the owner of the villa. If the officers were captured, the French would have turned them over to the Germans. General Clark waited at the bottom of the basement stairs with a loaded gun.

“If we fell into Nazi hands,” Clark later said, “it would be far from pleasant, and, of more importance, it would jeopardize the whole operation.”

Sounds like he had his priorities straight.

The owner of the villa managed to convince the French police that there was a party going on involving several high-ranking diplomats and a number of low-ranking women. (This seemed like something Frenchmen could understand, and might cause them to look the other way). The police left, and the Allied officers were safe.

For the moment.

The men waited till four in the morning to attempt a return to their submarine in rough seas. Soaking wet from trying to balance in the foldable kayaks, Clark was worried that his wet pants (and the two thousand dollars in gold) would drag him down. He ordered General Lemnitzer, the next lowest-ranking officer, to drop his pants and give them to him. Lemnitzer ordered Colonel Hamblen, the next ranking officer, to give up his pants. This went on down the ranks to a Lieutenant Foote, who outranked no one, and had to paddle back to the submarine in his underwear. Along the way, the kayak containing Clark’s pants, the gold and some top-secret documents was lost.

Clark sent word back to the villa asking his hosts to search the beach for his pants, the gold, and the documents. His wet trousers and the papers were recovered. The gold, oddly enough, was missing.

The men returned to Allied headquarters, where Clark received a telegram from British command in Gibraltar that said: “Inform Clark that he has not lost his pants nor his coat in Africa. But he will find them here clean and pressed on his return.”

A few days after getting back to headquarters, General Clark met with King George VI, who asked him, “Didn’t you get stranded on the beach without your pants?”

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America wrote Mrs. Clark asking for her husband’s measurements, telling her that “he lost his trousers honorably. He is a living example of the fact that a great hero need not lose his dignity thereby.”

Lieutenant Foote, who actually lost his pants (and perhaps some of his dignity), was not mentioned.

Operation Torch was a success.

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