RALEIGH — For six decades, they have felt their own nation's gratitude for their service during World War II. On Tuesday, 10 veterans from North Carolina were showered with the thanks of the country whose people they risked their lives to free.
In a ceremony at the old State Capitol building, with their wives, children, and great-grandchildren looking on, they stood when their names were called, just as they had as young recruits or draftees whose government needed their strength all those years before.
But this time, it was to be recognized for their valor and get inducted as knights - chevaliers - of the French Legion of Honor.
"Gentleman, you are true heroes," Pascal Le Deunff, the consul general of France in Atlanta, told the men before he pinned red-ribboned medals on their breasts. "You will be our heroes forever. We the French will never forget what you did to restore our freedom."
Le Deunff said his own grandfather, a member of the French resistance, was killed by German forces during the war.
"He would have loved to meet you," he said.
Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor recognizes service to the French republic. In presenting the award, Le Deunff was acting on behalf of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
To be eligible for the award, a veteran must have fought on French territory in one or more of the four main campaigns of the liberation of France: Normandy, southern France, northern France and the Ardennes. The award is given only to living veterans.
In recent years, French government representatives have presented hundreds of the awards to former American service members. Le Deunff said he holds at least one such ceremony a week somewhere around the country, in an effort to cite as many eligible veterans as possible. Honors have been bestowed in recent weeks at ceremonies in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Ohio and Indiana.
Tuesday's ceremony honored Frank Everett, Edward Middleton, Donald Bertino and William Steele of Fayetteville; Harold Shook of Cary; Graham Somers of Charlotte; Ralph Logan of Winston-Salem; John Worthington of Pink Hill; Billy Brown Olive of Durham; and Robert Patton of Chapel Hill.
Patton - no relation to Gen. George Patton, in whose Army he would serve - was a student at Davidson College, four credit hours short of graduating, when he was called up in 1943. Patton was in the 65th Infantry Division of the Third Army headed by the general.
"I became a machine gunner, which doesn't have a life expectancy in combat but for a short period of time," Patton recalled. But the Army also needed typists, and the piano-playing Patton had fast fingers on a keyboard. He was made company clerk. Later, he was moved to his infantry unit's battalion headquarters to serve as the operations sergeant.
His unit arrived in Europe in January 1945. They were supposed to meet their advance party in England, but while they were crossing the Atlantic, they were ordered to land in France instead, where they were needed in battle. Expecting to be resupplied in England, they arrived in France with only a day's rations, and lived for the next couple of weeks on bread they were able to buy from the French people, whose supplies also were strained.
"We bought all the bread in about 25 miles of Le Havre," Patton said. "The French people helped us survive."
As operations sergeant, whose job included typing up orders, Patton said he was always situated near the front lines. He was named battalion commander while his unit prepared to push across the Siegfried Line, the German defensive line of tunnels, tank traps and bunkers that stretched 390 miles along Germany's western border.
As battalion commander, his job was no longer to transmit the orders, but to give them.
His performance one night on the Siegfried Line earned Patton a Bronze Star, which led in part to his Legion of Honor induction.
His commander told Patton to order the battalion to move; they needed to pick up everything and travel, in the dark, to become the first assault unit to cross the defensive line and into Germany.
"I had to call in a lot of lieutenants who were in charge of supply, ammunition, artillery, the mortar people, everybody, and tell them to move," he said.
A few lieutenants balked. One said flat out that he would not go and neither would his men. Patton cast a glance at the phone, which only he knew wasn't working, and asked the lieutenant, "Why don't you call the commander and tell him you're not going?"
"He looked at the phone, looked back at me and said, 'What time did you say you want me to move out?' "
Patton sent minesweepers ahead of the rest of the forces to make sure the road was safe. Several hundred men traveled 10 miles that night, without losing a single one, arriving at a German village at daybreak.
"That's when the line began to crumble and fall apart," Patton said.
All the men cited Tuesday performed similarly, doing what at the time seemed just part of their jobs.
They broke through German defenses and flew bombing missions targeting German industrial sites, military equipment and airports. They freed French citizens from German concentration camps and pushed German forces out of French cities and towns.
They suffered frostbite and hunger. They got injured, treated, and sent back to fight again. They saw friends die.
Just as they were allies then, Le Deunff said, France and America are allies now, with terrorists as a common enemy. Values the two countries share, he said, serve as a moral compass for each.
"Long live the United States," Le Deunff said, "and Vive la France."
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