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'We will never forget': France honors Washington state vets for their WWII service

By ERIK LACITIS | The Seattle Times | Published: May 11, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — One is 94, the other two are 96. They were  just out of high school or a year past it when they joined up.

In this divided country, they have some thoughts about what's going on.

They're part of the dwindling number of World War II vets who in a few years will be all but gone. On Friday at the Museum of Flight, they stood proudly, if a little stooped, as they were given France's highest award, the Legion of Honor medal.

These were the men who liberated his country, says Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, France's consul general in San Francisco. "We will never forget."

The three vets are in remarkably good physical and mental shape. They've had a lot of decades in which to observe their homeland.

In interviews, they were asked about the USA in 2019.

We are a nation more polarized than at any point in recent history, as documented by the Pew Research Center and numerous other studies. Acrimony and vile comments seem to pervade.

They were asked: Was today's America worth their sacrifice?

Dick Nelms, 96, of Mercer Island, was working as a checker at an A&P when the war came. He was accepted as an aviation cadet and pilot trainee. In 1943, Nelms was assigned to the B-17 and the 447th Bomb Group 8th Air Force.

Based in England, he flew 35 missions into Nazi-occupied territory.

He remembers one 10-hour flight to Berlin particularly well.

"We came back with 300 holes, all from ground fire," says Nelms.  The rounds, he says, "went the through plane and they'd explode in all directions."

They were a lucky crew. No one was injured. They knew it was 300 holes because they counted them.

And the America of 2019?

"I'm not happy with what's going on," he says. "We have the wrong person leading."

He doesn't mention Donald Trump by name, but that's who he means.

"Even when he tells the truth, he lies about it by exaggerating," says Nelms.

Guys of that generation, they tend to keep stuff to themselves.

"I feel uncomfortable by discussing all my feelings," he says.

But. But. Stark divisions or not, "We're still the United States, and I still love it," says Nelms.

Around 400 foreigners receive the Legion of Honor each year. Beginning in June 2014, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, France announced it would be awarded to all veterans who fought for the liberation of the country during World War II.

That meant including someone such as Dan McAllaster, 96, of Issaquah. He joined out of high school in Leavenworth, Kansas.

He was trained as a mechanic and ended up assigned to maintaining P-38 planes in England that were modified to do photo reconnaissance.

That meant P-38s had their weapons replaced with precision cameras.

"I remember lopping off the nose of a plane so we could put a camera in there," says McAllaster.

And about the divided America?

All those people who think the country is sinking, he says, "I really don't understand why they're so pessimistic. We're still going forward. We're still helping other countries. We're still helping those in need."

Says McAllaster, "If we were attacked like in the '40s, I know we would unite again. I have faith in this country."

Stan Zemont, 94, of Bellingham, was 18 and just out of high school in Chicago when he volunteered for the infantry.

"I wanted to fight," he says. And fight he did, becoming a sergeant in the 3rd Battalion, 310th Infantry Regiment.

He remembers one incident that took place at 2 in the morning, when his patrol of some dozen men thought they'd be surprising German riflemen inside a pillbox, a concrete bunker with 6-foot-thick walls.

The Germans were waiting.

"They shot us all to pieces," says Zemont. "I was pinned down in a field. They lit up the sky with flares."

He's never forgotten the eerie words he heard next.

"I could hear Germans to the left, to the front, hollering, 'Hey, Joe!' 'Hey, Joe!'"

Zemont managed to get back to safety a couple of hundred yards away, although on the way he had to stop and rest. He was carrying a sergeant who had been shot in the shoulder and heel.

Zemont was discharged in January 1946. The next two years were not good.

"I turned to booze. I couldn't handle things. I was exploding," he says.

It wasn't called PTSD back then. The VA diagnosis was "anxiety," says Zemont.

He decided the only thing that could help him was getting back into the military, and he joined the Air Force.

Things got better, and he would work for Hughes Aircraft as a field rep for 35 years.  Still, he says, sometimes things flare up. "My wife, she understands my problems," says Zemont. "I feel so guilty."

And the America of today?

"It's not the America I fought for," he says. "We saluted our flag. We respected the flag."

After Colin Kaepernick, then of the San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling in 2016 when the national anthem was played, Zemont stopped watching football on TV.

"Why do that?" he says about kneeling in protest. "Take it to your councilman."

He stood and crossed his heart when they played a recording of the national anthem on stage for the ceremony.

"We still have a democracy. It's still worth fighting for," he says.

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