NORFOLK -- Politicians and foreign military leaders mingle inside a small room at Norfolk’s NATO headquarters in anticipation of a special ceremony. They become silent when the 93-year-old guest of honor walks in.
“What?” Eddie Shames says, breaking the brief silence. “Do I owe you people some money?”
The World War II vet usually resists formal recognition, though it’s impossible to tell whether he hates the spotlight or lives for it.
When grandchildren ask about parachuting into Normandy on D-Day, he’ll ignore the question and tell a funny story about buying an overpriced uniform in London. When they ask him to describe the horror he witnessed while liberating Nazi concentration camps, he’ll tell them instead about the cognac he swiped from Hitler’s hideout, which he later used to toast a son’s bar mitzvah.
He serves up his stories with a heavy dose of self-deprecation. Shames tells the dignitaries he’s flattered they’ve gathered in his honor, then he nudges the guy next to him: “They must be running out of veterans.”
Gen. Jean-Paul Paloméros, a French air force officer who’s in charge of NATO’s North American headquarters in Norfolk, enters the room and leads Shames to the front. The general says those in attendance are in the presence of a “genuine hero.”
“I know you don’t like that term, but I’m entitled to use it,” Paloméros tells Shames.
The French Legion of Honor, the general says, was created by Napoleon more than 200 years ago to recognize bravery in the defense of France.
Shames is getting his on Bastille Day, the anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution. More than 10,000 Americans have received the honor, most of them WWII veterans who helped free the country from German occupation.
“It took time, but you earned it,” Paloméros tells Shames.
“It took time,” Shames says and laughs. “Yeah, 70 years.”
“Well,” the general shrugs, “that’s administration.”
A moment later, Paloméros pulls a dagger from a leather sheath and touches the old man on each shoulder before pinning the medal to his left breast pocket.
“For once in my life, I don’t know what to say,” Shames says, then waits for the laughter to stop.
He says the honor belongs to the soldiers who served with him. Many of them survived the war; some of them did not. “This is theirs,” he says.
People in suits and military uniforms line up for photos.
“I want one of just you,” a cousin says.
“Of me?” Shames responds. “For what?”
Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim puts his arm around the retired Army colonel and smiles for the cameras.
“Mayor, you didn’t have your hand in my pocket, did you?” Shames blurts after the cameras stop clicking.
Rep. Bobby Scott is up next. Then the French general’s wife. Then Shames’ grandson.
“I’ve given many people the Legion d’honneur,” Paloméros says while Shames poses with a naval officer. “Every time is very moving, because you face a man or woman who really deserves the honor.”
Someone asks Shames if he plans to add the medal to the wooden case that his wife bought to hold his Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
“I don’t know,” he says. “How much do you think I could get for it on eBay?”