June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

On the morning of Sept. 3, 1944, an ominous rumbling shook the village of Peruwelz, Belgium. It was the sound of German tanks fleeing the Allied advance, and for the town’s 6,500 souls, it was the most harrowing moment they had known in four years of Nazi occupation. “That September was the most dangerous because the Germans were in retreat,” recalls Hector Delangre, 70, then a teenager fighting with the Resistance. “A soldier in retreat is capable of anything.”

At noon, another sound echoed through Peruwelz—the roar of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle carrying Pvt. James W. Carroll, 23, a U.S. Army scout who was the first GI to reach the town. His arrival could mean only one thing: liberation. Grateful citizens showered Carroll with wine, flowers and more. “I got to kiss him,” says Joanne Chevalier, 71. “He became a legend: the Motorcyclist, this man who allowed us to say it was finally over.”

In time, a photo of Carroll on his Harley became a national symbol in Belgium. Yet legend said that Carroll himself had died in battle shortly after leaving Peruwelz. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of the town’s liberation, local professor Pierre Deprez thought it fitting to locate his grave and lay a wreath on it. With the help of an American researcher, he found his man in an unlikely place—at home, and above ground, in Brewton, Ala.

“When I wrote to Pierre, I said, ‘Tell ’em I ain’t dead, I’m in Alabama,’ ” says Carroll, now 77. After pulling out of Peruwelz, he had not only survived but had also won a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge. After retiring from the Army in 1964, he worked for 16 years at a University of Minnesota library before settling back in his home state. “We were stupefied to learn he was still alive,” says Chevalier. When they did, what had been envisioned as a solemn memorial evolved into an annual festival with a costumed reenactment of the liberation including, at the town’s expense, the reappearance of Carroll himself. On May 2, during his fifth such visit, he was cheered wildly as he rode through Peruwelz in a vintage Jeep. “I could talk the rest of my life,” he says, “and never be able to explain this.”

Eight times married and divorced, Carroll seems the unlikeliest of national heroes. Born to a prostitute in Castleberry, Ala., he was adopted when he was about 6 by Tampa businessman Russell Carroll and his wife. But they split up, and at 16, James joined a carnival, touring the South. En route he stole a car and was sent to a military school in Washington, D.C. “But on a snowy night,” he says, “I went over the wall.” The escape earned him two years in reform school. After his release, Carroll was drafted for duty in World War II and volunteered to be a motorcycle scout, ending up in the 628th Tank Destroyers Battalion that helped push the Nazis out of France.

His was high-risk duty, requiring him to ride ahead of his unit into towns like Peruwelz to assess enemy positions. He entered Peruwelz twice—first, in the early morning, as a German convoy rolled through. “I ran into a storefront to hide,” he says. “I’m standing there, gun drawn, thinking I couldn’t take on the entire German army myself.” Just when it seemed safe to emerge, Carroll says, one last German came by on a motorcycle, “shooting at people, mostly women and children, who were looking out windows. So I shot him.” Quickly, a local swiped the dead man’s boots. “That’s how I remembered this town,” he says. “I got cut off by the Germans, shot a guy, and he lost his boots.”

Carroll went back to his unit, then returned to the village with a Resistance brigade. “There was no hope until he arrived,” recalls former Resistance fighter Francine Pluvinage, 77, who since his reappearance has become a close friend. “When I saw him again, I knew it was James,” she says. “It was his eyes. They couldn’t be anyone else’s.”

Carroll now spends two or three weeks a year in Belgium, visiting new friends and speaking in local schools. But he doesn’t consider himself a hero. “Never have, never will,” he says, as any true hero would. “I was just doing my job.”

Richard Jerome

Fannie Weinstein in Brewton and Peter Mikelbank in Peruwelz

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