France salutes nine Florida WWII veterans
TAMPA — The nine men had just received the Legion of Honor, France's highest honor, for their bravery during World War II when honoree Earl Gullett asked to speak.
He walked to the podium, pulled a paper out of a blazer pocket and began.
"Viva la France!"
Gullett, 87, of Lakeland, spoke briefly about receiving the honor and the relationship between both countries. He talked about his best friend and foxhole buddy who was killed in France during the war.
"I will honor this Legion of Honor medal in memory of all Americans who served in France during World War II," Gullett said.
When he finished, he turned to French Rear Adm. Patrick Martin.
"Sir, I salute you and your country," said Gullett, who joined the U.S Army Air Forces in August 1943 and participated in the liberation of Southern France.
Passion and strong emotions flowed through Thursday's ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base as Gaël de Maisonneuve, France's consul general in Florida, told of his country's appreciation of the men's efforts and Martin pinned each man with the medal.
"Those men are at the core of the Legion of Honor: fighting for America, fighting for France, fighting for democracy," de Maisonneuve said after the presentation.
The honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. It is given to people who exemplify French ideals, de Maisonneuve said. The honor is given to military personnel and civilians. Recipients have included Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
The ceremonies often are emotional, de Maisonneuve said. "There are so many memories that are deep inside them," he said.
"It's the memory that it reminds you of — of all the things while you were there," recipient Edward Doyle said after he was pinned with the medal. "It reaches the depth of your worth and your feelings."
Doyle, 88, of Seminole, enlisted in the Army in May 1943. He was a private first class in Battery C of the 635th Anti Aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion. He participated in the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Northern France, the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of the Rhine.
"It is a great tribute from these people to recognize me," Doyle said. "I am so grateful for this."
His wife, Diane, who also attended, said she knew her husband was proud of the honor.
"He speaks of his war experience often, as most veterans do," she said. "Most veterans do because it was such an important experience in their lives."
The honorees include:
Arthur Meeks, 93, of Lakeland, who joined the Army in May 1944. He was a private first class in Company C of the 385th Infantry, 76th Division of the Third Army under Gen. George Patton. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of the Rhine.
Joseph Anderson, 89, of Bradenton, who joined the Army in December 1942. He was a staff sergeant in Company E of the 302nd Infantry. He participated in the liberation of Northern France, the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of the Rhine.
Cosmo DeFazio, 87, of Beverly Hills, who joined the Army in July 1943. He arrived on D-Day, participated in the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Northern France and the Battle of the Rhine.
George Difalco, 88, of Lakeland, who joined the Army in May 1943. He participated in the Normandy invasion, the liberation of Northern France, the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of the Rhine.
Frank Gresser, 87, of Spring Hill, who joined the Navy in 1943. He participated in the Normandy invasion and the liberation of Southern France.
Donald Walters, 88, of Lady Lake, who joined the Army in June 1943. He participated in the Battle of the Rhine.
Honoree Hugh Wyn Griffith, 87, of Seminole, said the award meant a lot to him because his father, who was in the British army, had received the Croix de Guerre from France for service in World War I.
Thursday's honor extended beyond him, he said.
"Although it is personal, it's for all Americans, not just me," said Wyn Griffith, who joined the Army in 1943 and participated in the Battle of the Rhine.
"Recognition is something we all appreciate," he said.