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Serving Our Country: Hotel Hershey During World War II

Hotel Hershey and grounds. ca.1935-1940
Hotel Hershey and grounds. ca.1935-1940

While many are familiar with Hershey Chocolate Corporation’s contributions to the war effort manufacturing millions of Ration ‘D’ survival ration bars, Hershey also played an important, though little known, service to our country during the war. During the war years, Hotel Hershey served as an internment camp for the Vichy French diplomatic corps stationed in the United States.

Germany invaded and defeated France in the spring of 1940. A large portion of southwestern France was left unoccupied by the conquering army. A new French government, sympathetic to the Nazi regime, was established in the town of Vichy. As part of political protocol, the Vichy government sent Gaston Henri Haye to Washington, D.C. to serve as the French ambassador to the United States.

By late 1942, the United States had lost patience with the pro Hitler French government. In September 1942 the State Department discovered that the French Embassy in Washington D.C. had sent a letter to the Vichy Government concerning United States war production. On November 7 the United States launched its invasion of French North Africa, “Operation Torch.” On November 11, the Germans, fearing they would be outflanked in the south and not trusting Vichy, occupied the remaining portion of France. The United States still had relations with Vichy, and now American diplomatic personnel were behind German enemy lines. The American diplomats were moved an internment camp at Lourdes.

The State Department responded by deciding the Henry Haye and his staff would soon leave the French embassy in Washington. They began looking for a place to put them.  Newspapers across the country published stories of the arrest of the pro-Nazi ambassador and his staff. Page 17 of the November 14, 1942 New York Times featured a large aerial photograph of the Hotel Hershey. “Where French Diplomats Will Be Housed” read the caption.

The New York Times article continued, “Negotiations are under way here between the Federal Government and the Hershey Estates over the housing of 300 representatives of the Vichy government at the hotel Hershey. Discussions have been going on since Wednesday, but no arrangements had been completed,” the paper noted. The State Department planned to place the Vichy Government staff in custody until arrangements could be made for their repatriation and subsequent exchange for the American diplomats being detained by France.

While the New York Times believed that arrangements were still being made, in reality, Joseph Gassler, General Manager for the Hotel, had already sent a letter to Cordell Hull, Secretary of State on November 12, 1942, offering the Hotel’s services.

I have the honor to advise you that Hotel Hershey has placed its facilities at your service… I shall be very happy to have these people as our guests and assure you, my dear Secretary, that we will do our utmost, in every respect, to give the high standard of service which the famous Hotel Hershey knows how to give.

Mr. Gassler’s letter also included details about the specific conditions of the arrangements. Tariff for adults was set at $7.50/day per person, children (0-12 years old) $4.00 per person, and guards, $4.00 per person. Incidental expenses incurred were to be billed to the State Department at cost, and gratuities were also to be paid by State Department funding.

The Hotel was chosen to sequester the Vichy French government representatives for several reasons. Hershey Estates was cooperative, the quality of accommodations was quite high and the possibly most importantly, the Hotel was in a secluded and defensible location.

Click here to learn more about Hershey’s contributions to the United States war effort.

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