French government to honor Biloxi WWII vet
The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.)
BILOXI -- A South Mississippi World War II veteran who landed at Omaha Beach in France during the D-Day invasion in 1944 will receive a high honor from the French government next week for his bravery 68 years ago.
Oscar Russell, 88, of Biloxi, was a 21-year-old U.S. Navy seaman when he arrived at the beaches as part of the campaign to drive the Germans from France and destroy Adolph Hitler's regime. Dozens of men in the Higgins landing craft next to the one he arrived in were killed. Russell made it to the beach, where he stayed for 28 days, tirelessly rendering aid, moving bodies and helping as many members of the U.S. forces as he could.
At a ceremony at the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby on Wednesday, he'll be presented with France's Legion of Honor award and will receive the title of chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
The Legion of Honor, often referred to as "the highest French distinction," was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to honor services given to France. It is awarded to people from all walks of life -- including diplomats, scientists, artists and others -- and many World War II vets have received it.
"I just feel humbled," Russell said Friday. "I'm glad the country appreciates me for trying to help protect the country, so people would be able to laugh and have friends and just enjoy life."
A few hours ahead of the June 6, 1944, land invasion, about 13,000 Allied paratroopers dropped into inland areas of France during predawn darkness with the goal of knocking out enemy communications lines, clearing areas of German soldiers and reinforcements, and performing other operations ahead of the massive beach invasion.
Many paratroopers were killed or injured, but those who could fought tough and kept the Germans busy.
About 6:30 a.m., more than 100,000 troops poured onto French soil. The first wave landed at five sectors along the shore, code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Many soldiers wading shore were killed by the steady barrage of bullets -- a terrifying ordeal, as portrayed in the film "Saving Private Ryan," among others. The fighting was hard, especially on Omaha Beach, where Russell was, as some estimate 3,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded there.
It's still unclear just how many died that day, as official death tolls vary greatly. Some say as many as 6,000 Allied troops were killed and wounded.
But it's hard to know, because many were blown to pieces and couldn't be identified, many drowned or were lost and in some cases those keeping the records were killed and their documents lost there beside the bodies and the blood.
But by the end of the day, the Allied forces had a foothold. Once German counterattacks fizzled, troops hauled in supplies and Russell began taking care of the injured.
Over the next couple of months, the reinforcements helped the invading forces move farther inland. When he left Europe, Russell went to the South Pacific and continued to fight.
After he finished his time in World War II, he went back to his native Mississippi and joined the Navy reserves.
He worked as a teacher and minister and he and his wife, Helen, whom he's been with for 64 years, had two children and later grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren. He's inspired many members of his family, including his grandson, 1st Lt. Rodney Brock, who is with the 177th Armored Brigade, of the 1st Army Division East.
"My mother taught me to first love my God, then my family and my country and that's what I've always tried to do -- have respect for each of those," Russell said. "That's what makes life so sweet, to know you have a lovely family and the people and the country."