EVERETT -- Ignazio "Nat" Gattinella didn't flinch in the face of withering fire from German troops, but the man who was about to pin a medal on the veteran's chest Saturday thought it only fair to issue a warning. "As it is a French ceremony," Jack Cowan told Gattinella, "it is the tradition that I kiss you on both cheeks."
Gattinella accepted the pecks with dignity and stood at attention as Cowan awarded him the red-ribboned National Order of the Legion of Honour, France's highest decoration. The ceremony in Everett was part of the European nation's continuing efforts to thank the Allied soldiers who drove out German occupiers more than 60 years ago.
"We will never forget your sacrifice to restore our freedom," said Cowan, the honorary French consul in Seattle.
Overflowing the room at Emeritus at Silver Lake Senior Assisted Living, Gattinella's friends and family members erupted in applause.
The newly minted chevalier, or knight, kept his remarks brief.
"I want to remember the people that still wear the uniform of the services, in harm's way," he said. "Let's bring them back home."
When he learned he would be getting the medal, the 86-year-old Gattinella expected a small ceremony at his home in Marysville. But his friends at Emeritus, where he participates in exercise classes several times a week, wanted to do it up right. "It just grew," he said, looking out at the beaming crowd.
A first-generation Italian American from Massachusetts, Gattinella first tried to enlist in the military at the age of 17. He finally succeeded a year later and arrived in the French port of Marseille on a converted cruise ship Oct. 20, 1944.
As part of the Army's famed 100th Infantry Division, Gattinella was in the thick of fierce fighting. The Americans' job was to gain control of towns and mountainous countryside near France's border with Germany.
"For the Germans, it was do or die," Gattinella said. "You could say they were really fighting to the last man."
Gattinella was a machine-gunner.
In 2004, he and his wife, Virginia, joined several other veterans in a visit to the French towns where the men had fought, and where Gattinella had watched many of his friends die. Standing in the same fields where he had once dug foxholes was surreal, he said.
"The ground didn't shake, but I did."
Many buildings still bore the scars of gunfire and exploding shells.
It was in the town of Bitche, at the foot of the Vosges Mountains, where one of those shells came close to ending Gattinella's life. His squad leader was killed. Gattinella's body was riddled with shrapnel. Medics chopped down two saplings and threaded the trunks through his raincoat to fashion a makeshift litter. "That's how they carried me out."
He spent three months in the hospital before being assigned to limited duty in a supply office. In May 1946, Gattinella shipped home.
He still has the card that designates him an official member of the "Sons of Bitche," the men of the 100th who captured the town and its citadel.
At Saturday's ceremony, Gattinella's son John said his dad over the years never talked much about the war, even after moving to Washington state in the 1980s. "It was a bad memory for him." But after his trip back to France, the elder Gattinella opened up about his experiences.
Cowan, who also directs Seattle's French-American Chamber of Commerce, said he awards several of the medals every year to veterans of the French campaign.
"It's probably the best thing I get to do as honorary consul," he said.
Gattinella was a bit more ambivalent about the medal.
"I'm glad they're showing their appreciation," he said. "But in another sense, I didn't really do anything in particular to earn it."
Virginia Gattinella doesn't see it that way. She knows what her husband went through during the war, and the bad dreams he suffered afterward.
"I think this award is really special," she said. "He deserves it."