There is a very famous scene in the movie Casablanca where some German officers in a nightclub in Vichy-controlled Casablanca start to sing “Die Wacht am Rhein” and then the French band and patrons start to perform “La Marseillaise” in response.

While this “dual of the songs” was created for this film, today I came across a story of a similar event which apparently actually happened during the war.

In particular, I was listening to an interview with Peter Gray on the Imperial War Museums web site. Gray was an Australian seaman who became a Japanese prisoner of war in the Dutch East Indies, and then was held in various internment camps around the region.

In 1944 Gray was in a prisoner of war camp in Saigon. In 1944, French Indochina was under the control of the Vichy French government, but the Japanese had been given certain rights to military bases and resources.


The Japanese decided to move a group of the prisoners from the camp in Saigon to one in Singapore. To do this they were transported by boat to Phnom Penh, and then by train first to Bangkok, and then down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore.

In Phnom Penh, the prisoners had to march about a mile and a half from the wharf to the train station, and according to Gray, the Japanese guards wanted to make something of a spectacle of this march.

The summary of this interview on the Imperial War Museums site refers to this as a “story of marching past French civilians.” However, Gray talks about “the population.” He says that “the population of course was relatively pro-French” and “the French were more or less on our side, or the people out there were.”

So by “the population,” Gray seems to be referring to Cambodians.


In any case, he says that when they were walking down the road through Phnom Penh people threw cigarettes and fruit into the group of marchers and that the Japanese didn’t like this.

In an effort to demonstrate control over the situation, a Japanese officer gave the order: “All men sing!”

Gray says that the prisoners hesitated for a second, but that then “somebody had the brilliant idea of whistling the Marseillaise. And the Marseillaise went up and down the line. Of course everybody knows bits of it, but the population, the moment they heard this Marseillaise being sung, they went mad! They ran up and down the road and shouted and cheered. And then of course the Japs had to try to shut us up.”

In his interview, Gray laughed about this episode and stated that it was a terrible loss of face for the Japanese.


So while the singing of La Marseillaise in Casablanca was probably fiction, apparently there actually was a defiant whistling of La Marseillaise by (non-French) Allied prisoners of war that was cheered by Cambodians in Phnom Penh.

Vive la France!

[The interview is here. This story is on reel 17 and starts at around the 2’30” point.]