WASHINGTON — They were willing to fight and risk death in France’s time of need, and this week in Washington, a grateful ally gave thanks.
Thirteen U.S. veterans of the Second World War pinned on the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration, in a ceremony at the French Embassy. Relatives of a 14th veteran who died days before the ceremony received the award in his name.
“In the darkest hours of our history, if you had not been by our side, France would not have been liberated,” Olivier Sérot-Alméras, French consul general in Washington, told the men. “We know, and we will always remember what the price was — 60,000 American soldiers were laid to rest on French soil.”
France has long given the Legion of Honor to U.S. veterans who made particular contributions to freeing the country from German occupation, but there is a special resonance to the ceremonies this year.
With the 70th anniversary of D-Day fast approaching, the number of living U.S. veterans who fought in France is in sharp decline, and many fewer are likely to see the next major anniversary of the invasion. Of those honored Wednesday, the youngest was 88, while most were in their 90s.
Despite the intervening years, their memories of war — of both horrors and triumphs — remain incredibly vivid for several of the veterans who spoke to Stars and Stripes at the ceremony.
William E. Gast, 89, was a 19-year-old Army tech corporal when he drove a Sherman tank up Omaha Beach 10 minutes before the invasion was actually set to begin.
Some of the men in his 743rd Tank Battalion never even made it to land, sinking into the surf while sealed inside vehicles that would become coffins. But after a moment of suspense, Gast felt his tank tracks grab, and the vehicle pulled out of the water.
Unable to open his hatch for a better view, he relied on his commander for directions — with kicks on either shoulder telling him which way to turn.
“I’m sitting in this tank, down in it with this little periscope, and I can see practically nothing,” he said. “I can hear the machine gun bullets hitting the side of the tank like throwing marbles at the side of a car — that’s what it sounded like inside the tank. And there were shells that exploded right beside me. You could feel the tank shake. Fortunately none of them hit us.”
Gast said he remains haunted by the possibility that while driving blind, he ran over some of his fellow soldiers.
Later, while under heavy fire, he rescued several men whose car had been rocketed, and he was awarded the Silver Star as well as a Purple Heart.
Memories of a fatal scouting mission haunt another veteran honored for by France for his heroism.
Several months after D-Day, Pfc. Edwin H. Stulb III was on point for a group of soldiers probing the German front lines around the major port of Cherbourg when they came under fire. Soon, the Germans began bracketing mortar rounds around them while they took cover atop a hill.
“They landed one in there, and it knocked everyone out but me and two other men,” said Stulb, now 91.
One of the men was badly wounded, and begged Stulb to end his suffering.
“He wanted me to shoot him right in the head, because he thought his whole body was just in shreds,” he said. “He said he was sure he wasn’t going to survive, but I said, ‘Yes, you’re going to survive. Just get the hell back down where you were. That’s a good ditch, well below where any mortar shell can hit you.’”
A subsequent round badly wounded Stulb, who would later receive a Purple Heart. Both were soon carried away by medics, and Stulb has tried in decades since to find out what happened to the other soldier. Speaking to a reporter before the ceremony, he admitted the trauma of that day remains fresh.
“Telling it now is upsetting for me,” he said. “I don’t tell that story freely.”
Several of those present came to fully understand what they were fighting against when they helped liberate German concentration camps.
Saburo A. Kitagawa, 93, participated in the liberation of Rome and later fought in France, earning a Purple Heart along the way.
In the interim, he and other members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, made up of Japanese-American troops, helped free prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich.
The irony of the situation was not lost on Kitagawa, who had joined the Army out of a Nevada internment camp for Japanese-Americans.
The German camp’s prisoners, he said “were surprised to see us — Japanese-Americans. We were also in concentration camps in the United States. President Roosevelt decreed that.”
When Albert J. Zimmerman, a sergeant in charge of a machine gun squad, arrived at Dachau, he was bewildered to find boxcars stacked with emaciated bodies.
“We had no idea there was such a thing as Dachau,” he said. “We knew something was wrong because of the odor — from miles away we could smell the place, but no one told us what it was, and then we came upon it. Terrible. Terrible.”
Zimmerman remained an NCO at the end of the war in Europe by his own choice. Earlier, on Christmas Day 1944, the 2nd lieutenant who led his platoon had been shot, and a commander offered the sergeant a battlefield commission.
He just laughed off the proposal.
“I said ‘I tried to go to West Point, I tried to go to officers candidate school, I tried to be a pilot.”
But, he said, he was told by the Army, “No no, Mr. Zimmerman, you’re colorblind, you can’t be an officer.
“So I said, ‘No, I’m going to stay with my machine gun squad, and that’s where I want to be.’”
Zimmerman, now 90, later received a Bronze Star but said his greatest distinction in the war came from his decision to stay with the squad.
“And I took those five boys into combat and sent five men home to their mamas,” he said. “That the thing I’m most proud of in my service, taking care of those five young men.”