MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Tears, applause and congratulatory handshakes the rule of the day after nine World War II veterans were honored Friday in Montgomery.
The men were given the Legion of Honor, the Republic of France's highest award for their heroism in freeing France from Nazi Germany during a special ceremony in City Hall, led by Denis Barbet, Consulate General of France in Atlanta on behalf of French President François Hollande.
Six men from Alabama, two from Mississippi and one from Tennessee, were each awarded as Knights of the Legion of Honor.
"I am deeply humbled and moved for the opportunity to thank these veterans officially and to present them with the gratitude of the French for their service 70 years ago," Barbet said. "Thanks to all of you who fought against tyranny for the free world."
The National Order of the Legion of Honor recognizes services to the French Republic, including those who risked their lives during WWII and fought on French territory in one of four main campaigns: The liberation of France, the Invasion of Normandy on D-Day, the Battle of Provence and the Battle of the Ardennes.
One of the veterans invited to the event, Vincent Rowell, served in the Army during WWII and was one of those soldiers who stormed Normandy and lived to tell about it.
He had tears in his eyes as the memories became fresh once again.
Rowell landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, and continued to fight across France until the Battle of the Bulge, he said.
"Everyone there would get up in the morning, who were able to get any sleep at night, and we would say, 'Well, I wonder if this is going to be my day?'" Rowell said.
For many in Rowell's division, D-Day was that day. They were among the first wave to storm the beach. They had been trained to "bust the beach open," he said.
"I had my rifle over my head getting to that beach," Rowell said. "I had to push bodies aside there were so many dead, laying in the water ... some of them still alive, bleeding to death. I'd hear them say, 'Mama, mama, come get me, I need ya.' I knew I couldn't save them."
"War is a terrible thing, but we were called to do it and I thank God he brought me home," Rowell added.
Rowell often visits the cemetery where his comrades and brothers-in-arms are buried.
"I'm called a hero, but I don't claim to be a hero. I see all those white crosses. All of them my age, and I couldn't bring any of them back," Rowell said. "That stays with me to this day."
- Joseph Connaughton
- William E. Massey
- Don Echols
- Ellington Franklin
- Joseph O. Ingram, Jr
- Mr. Sherwin A. Callander
- Vincent Rowell
- David L. Smith
- J.T. Street Jr. (posthumously)
First Lt. Joseph Connaughton, 92, served as a bombardier navigator for the 319th Bomb Group, 438th Squadron and served on several support missions that eventually led to France's freedom. He has since written about his accounts in Tales of the 319th.
He was surprised to receive a letter in the mail July 2015 at his home in Huntsville signifying the honor and that was signed by French President François Hollande.
"The French are very generous people," Connaughton said. "Sharing their highest honor with the veterans who helped liberate their country from Nazi occupation indicates to me the intense gratification of the French of what we did over there and their love for freedom."
Connaughton fought in the Invasion of Southern France and in other critical support missions. On Aug. 12 and 13, 1944, he flew along two missions to bomb coastal enemy outposts to allow battleships to move in.
He was also a part of the Toulon invasion on Aug. 15.
"We were told the invasion was at 8 o'clock and we had to bomb the beaches and be out of there by 7:30 a.m.," Connaughton said. "We bombed the beaches, because there was obstructions there that would obstruct landing on the beach."
Four days later, they bombed the bridge over the Rhone River to stop the Germans from retreating.
First Lt. William Massey, 95, spent a total of 76 days on French soil after he and his crew were blown from their B-17 Flying Fortress. Massey was a bombardier who flew with the 401st Bomb Group, 8th Air Force out of England. He traveled from Homewood, Ala. for the ceremony.
Massey's team bombed industrial target in Germany and over other surrounding countries that had been seized by the Nazis. On his 19th mission in 1944, they were shot down over France.
"On the way down, when the plane blew up, we were actually blown to safety," Massey said. "I still had my parachute in my hand and I didn't put it on, until I was falling in the air. We hit the ground and luckily we were uninjured."
He and his crew of two others made it out safely and hailed down passers-by who brought them to a French encampment. They were under their care for 15 days and in turn Massey helped them with their missions June 19, 1944 in Bordeaux.
After two weeks, a man in Army fatigues walked into the encampment saying his name was Joe with OSS, which now is known as the CIA. He sent there to get Massey and his team back to England.
"We talked and I said, 'Heck, you're a spy?'" Massey said. "He said that was correct and that there was many in France ... he was going to get us out, because Germany was looking for pockets of resistance and when they find them, they don't take prisoners."
After secretly traveling through France for a few months, Joe was able to put Massey and his team on a cargo plane back to England.
Over the years, Massey has had opportunities to visit France and meet those who helped him to safety, and for that he is forever grateful.
Massey's friend, Staff Sgt. Don Echols, 90, also traveled from Homewood and served in the 8th Air Force. Echols served in the 458st Bomb Group as an aerial turret gunner on B-24s with his twin brother.
"It was supposed to be against the rules, but no one every picked up on it and we flew all our bombing missions together until I was injured," Echols said. "I was in the nose and my twin brother was belly turret that was suspended below the plane."
Echols served on 14 missions over France, including the Battle of Saint Lo and was wounded during his last one which took him from the battlefield to an Army hospital in England. After he was well, he went back to the United States as a gunner instructor for the B-24.
His brother continued their mission and completed 30 missions with the 458th over France, Germany, Belgium and Holland.
Staff Sgt. Ellington Franklin, 95, served in the 81st troop Carrier Squadron, 436th Carrier Group, 9th Air Force and now lives in Hoover, Ala. with his wife.
Franklin was born and raised in the Birmingham area, married there five months before Pearl Harbor was attacked in Dec. 1941. He immediately joined the Army Air Corps and left his wife, pregnant with their first son, Donald Franklin and deployed on Christmas Day.
Just last year, Donald Franklin submitted his father's records to the French Consulat in hopes his dad would be considered for the Legion of Honor. He was.
"Dad, the French are going to kiss you on both cheek," he told his father. Donald and other family members accompanied Ellington Franklin to the ceremony.
Ellington was a radio operator serving aboard troop carrier planes that dropped paratroopers over enemy territory. He arrived in England late January 1944 and flew over Normandy twice during D-Day, Donald said.
"His unit dropped paratroopers at 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. in the morning into France and before dawn, they hit the beaches," Donald said. "Their unit did not lose any aircraft on that day. On their way back to England, dawn was breaking on D-Day and my dad saw all 1,000 ships on their route to invade the beaches."
His father went back over Normandy later that same day to tow gliders carrying infantry, ammunition and food. Later, he again he ferried supplies after the Invasion of Southern France, the invasion of Holland, one of the largest airborne operations, the Battle of Bastogne and the drop over the Rhine.
In addition, he helped free French prisoners from Nazi labor camps and factories and flew them back to France.
Joseph O. Ingram Jr.
Tech. Sgt. Joseph O. Ingram, Jr., 97, from Sheffield, Ala. served in the 96th Bomb Group, 337th Squadron after he enlisted in 1941 for the Army Air Corps.
He signed up for pilot training, but his poor depth perception moved him into another direction.
"I went into gunnery school on the B-17s and then went to airplane mechanics school and crew training," Ingram said.
After training, Ingram was stationed in England and served as the top gunner and engineer for the B-17. He flew a total of 33 missions over the France and the coast, including two missions on D-Day and two shuttle bombing missions to Russia.
"I flew on one or two missions and knew right then that is was dangerous," Ingram said. "I was scared from then on ... but I had to do my job."
Sherwin A. Callander
Fireman lst Class, Sherwin A. Callander, 95, of Madison, Ala., served in the Navy before the United States joined World War II. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor the day it was attacked by the Japanese, only he was out to sea when the island was hit.
The ship he was on, the USS Wright was out at Midway Island laying out buoys, sailed back to Pearl Harbor only to found the area in complete devastation.
"Our ship was actually reported sunk and it was a whole week before I could tell my parents I was Ok," Callander said.
Callander was so scared of the Japanese that he decided to volunteer for amphibious training and was sent to the European theater as an engineer on the boats that invaded Africa, Italy and Normandy. He served on the USS Lyon.
He was on one of the boats that troops to the beaches at Normandy. Callander described a terrifying scene.
"We were in charge of the boats that landed on the beach and backed off. On the third wave of boats, there was too many dead bodies floating in the water that we couldn't get up on the beach anymore," Callander said. "The men had to start getting out in hip-high in the water."
"I remember I had to change my pants after it was over with, I was so scared," Callander said.
In 2014, Callander was able to attend the 70th anniversary ceremonies at Normandy in June with the help of generous donations through his GoFundMe account and visited the graves of his fallen comrades while in there.
Private 1st Class Vincent Rowell, who now lives in Tennessee, served in the 311th Field Artillery Battalion, 79th Infantry Division, stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day and later fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
He specialized as a sharp-shooter and heavy machine gunner.
Years later, Rowell had the opportunity to return to Normandy, France in 2014 to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day.
David L. Smith
Private 1st Class David L. Smith, 90, hails from Madison, Miss. and served in the Army's 179th Infantry, 45th Division. He was boots on the ground and nearly lost his arm in the process.
Smith first volunteered to join the Army when he was 18, and was sent overseas to Sicily, Italy and then in two weeks, they hit the beaches of southern France.
"From France we traveled five to six months to Germany taking one village at a time," Smith said.
They reached the edge of Germany when they were hit with a freezing winter.
"We spent 85 days in a foxhole ... it was freezing and rain turned to sleet, our artillery couldn't move and there we had the Germany battle line right in front of us," Smith said.
Getting hit with a bullet to the neck didn't stop Smith from the fight and after 21 days was back in action. However, the weather began to warm and they moved out.
That's when they faced German tanks. One shell hit the ground and shrapnel torn Smith's arm to the bone. Doctors thought they would have to amputate.
"I asked if there was any way I could keep it on," Smith said. "They said they would try, but I would be in the hospital for a long time. I was. I stayed in the hospital in Texas for 14 or 15 months."
"My armed was saved and I still have pretty good use of it," Smith added.
For all the blood he saw during WWII, Smith counts Friday's ceremony as a true honor, he said.
J.T. Street Jr.
Private 1st Class, J.T. Street Jr. of Ripley, Miss. was posthumously awarded Friday with the Legion of Honor and his son, Jay Street accepted the medal on his behalf.
Born and raised in Mississippi, Street like many others answered the nation's call to fight in WWII. He served in the Army's 3820th Quartermaster Gas Supply Company, 3rd Armored Division. He died at the age of 91 at his home in Ripley on July 25, 2015.
Street survived Omaha Beach on D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge; where he met General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Jay said his father never spoke of his time there, until years later when he was nearly 75-years-old.
"I'm sure it was bad memories and that's why he would not talk about it, but we would beg him to tell us about it," Jay said. "It wasn't until after he had heart surgery that he opened up and began talking at different places like high schools."
Some stories Street would tell was how he caught shrapnel in the leg or ate chocolate bars during the Battle of the Bulge, because that's all there was. Another story was when Street landed on the beaches of Normandy.
"On D-Day my dad was jumping off the Higgins boat and threw off his pack because the boat had stopped too far from the shore. Those who jumped off with their packs weren't coming back up," Jay Street said.
Jay believes his father suffered all those years with survivor's guilt.
"My dad said one time, the heroes are the ones that didn't come back," Jay Street said.
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