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French honor Virginia man, other 'freedom fighters' from across the ocean

A World War II-era jeep drives on Omaha Beach during the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations on June 7, 2014.

JOSHUA L. DEMOTTS/STARS AND STRIPES

By CATHY DYSON | The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. | Published: June 22, 2016

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Jimmy Farmer Sr. sat in front of the crowd gathered at the French Embassy in Washington, looking spiffy in his dark blue jacket, white shirt and patriotic tie.

On his right lapel was a striped medal, one that he had asked his son, Jimmy Jr., to take out of the shadow box at home so he could wear it for the special occasion.

The award signified that the elder Farmer had been on Omaha Beach the morning of June 6, 1944, when Allied forces launched the largest amphibious attack in history.

Farmer, of Caroline County, was hardly an elder at the time. He had joined the Navy at 17, and a year later, found himself on a small boat making a series of trips carrying troops to the Normandy shore for the D-Day invasion during World War II.

When a storm later sank his boat, Farmer ended up swimming to the same beach as soldiers had shed their lifeblood trying to claim. The shelling from the Germans wasn’t as bad then, but Farmer and others still had to hide out for two weeks, in foxholes along the beach, until help came.

No doubt Farmer was thinking back to that day on Tuesday, when he sat in front of an audience at the embassy of more than 110 men, women and a choir from a local school.

French officials had invited him and eight other veterans, plus family members of two who had died, to thank them for their help in liberating their country 72 years ago.

They named the Americans “chevaliers,” or knights of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest distinction.

“The French continue to honor and remember the freedom fighters who came to us from across the ocean,” said Jean-Marc Todeschini, France’s Minister of State for Veterans and Remembrance.

Speaking to the veterans, he said: “You brought light to Europe, which had been plunged into darkness.”

On Tuesday, officials with the French Army brought the medals, carried on a dark blue velvet pillow, to the Americans. Farmer was the second to have the heavy, five-point white cross pinned to his left lapel, and he smiled as Todeschini praised him in French, embraced him and kissed each cheek.

After all the hugging and hand-shaking, Farmer said humbly: “I think everything was great.”

So did his entourage.

His son had been reluctant to fight the metro traffic, but friends convinced him being part of the embassy ceremony would be a once-in-a-lifetime honor.

His son’s wife, Donna, came to the event, too, along with friends Ted Garber and Jeff Sili, a member of the Caroline County Board of Supervisors.

“I just think it’s a great honor for Jimmy and for somebody from Caroline County,” Sili said.

The senior Farmer has spent his whole life within a few miles of the Bowling Green home he built in 1963, except for his three years in the service.

He was 16 when he and a friend tried to enlist, but were told they were too young. He later convinced his parents to sign permission for him to join.

“Most of all the boys out of Milford went into the Navy,” he recalled. “My parents didn’t want me to go at all, but all my friends had gone, and I didn’t want to be left behind.”

After training on the East Coast, he boarded a ship for England, not having any idea he’d be part of an invasion that foreshadowed the end of Adolph Hitler’s dream of Nazi domination.

“I was young,” he said simply, adding no one knew where troops were headed.

After the Normandy invasion and his foray into the Atlantic, Farmer came stateside again for training and ended up in another ocean.

He was assigned to a landing craft ship and sent to the Pacific theater, where he was part of the tail end of another major invasion: of Okinawa. By the time his ship arrived, it was part of a picket line, designed to keep Japanese planes from bombing bigger American ships. He loaded ammunition on a twin 40-millimeter gun atop the ship.

“There were so many airplanes and so many guns shooting at them,” he said, “you didn’t know if you shot them or somebody else did.”

Not that anybody paused to keep score, or to cheer.

“We didn’t celebrate until the war ended.”

Farmer was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese formally surrendered.

“I saw the latter part of the German war and the latter part of the Japanese war,” he said. “I was glad to get back home.”

Back in Caroline, he wed his wife, Rose, and they had two sons and four grandchildren. He worked at a bakery and auto parts store in Richmond, before operating a Texaco station on Main Street in Bowling Green for 34 years.

The Farmers were married for 68 years before her death in 2014, he said, showing a visitor a photo of her from two years ago. She’s sitting atop a camel at the Caroline County Fair.

Once he got home, Farmer didn’t talk much initially about his time in the service. His son was in his 20s and working as a deputy for the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office when he heard other guys talking about his dad.

Before then, all the younger Farmer knew about D-Day or the World War II battles in the Pacific came from history books.

Eventually, his father began having conversations about the war, and with his mother, started attending reunions.

Jimmy Farmer Sr. donated the heavy gear he was wearing, when he swam ashore in 1944, to the future World War II museum in Bedford. During a visit to the memorial there, the father and son met a Frenchmen, and one thing led to another, and the group got to talking about the war.

When the Frenchman learned that the elder Farmer had helped liberate him and his countrymen all those years ago, he sent the family paperwork to apply for the Legion of Honor medal.

Jimmy Farmer Jr. was impressed with the weight of the medal the first time he saw it and even more so, when it was attached to his father’s lapel.

“Now we just gotta make some room in the cabinet for it,” he said.

Cathy Dyson: cdyson@freelancestar.com

©2016 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)
Visit The Free Lance-Star at www.fredericksburg.com/flshome
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