Arts & Culture
8:00 am
Wed February 29, 2012

NC WWII Veterans Awarded Legion of Honour

Ten veterans in North Carolina received France’s highest honor in a special ceremony yesterday. The French Consul General in Atlanta awarded the Legion of Honour to a group of World War Two veterans in a ceremony at the old state capitol building. The retired service members say they were lucky to survive a war that changed their lives forever.

Jessica Jones: 94-year-old William Steele says he can still remember nearly every detail of the day he parachuted onto a Normandy beach back in 1944. It was June sixth- otherwise known as D-Day. Steele was on the front lines of the largest amphibious assault in history.

William Steele: It was terrible. Whole planes going down in the air, and lighters coming in and getting their wings clipped off, my chute come down right over the top of me, finally got out from under it, people running around out there, cows and horses in the field, and then I sneaked off and got away.

Steele made his way to a road crossing where he got into a firefight with German soldiers. Then he and other paratroopers who didn’t get caught in trees and utility poles came to a little French town with a beautiful stone church.

Steele: We captured Saint Mere Eglise, which was the first town captured in France. There was quite a few people there hanging from trees. One man was hanging from a church steeple. Lot of dead horses, everything was dead.

Tens of thousands of Allied and German troops died, went missing, or were injured in the invasion. But the campaign led to the loss of the German position in most of France and that country’s eventual liberation. Pascal Le Deunff is the French Consul General in Atlanta. He spoke before a crowd of veterans and their families in the historic old House of Representatives yesterday.

Pascal Le Deunff: We the French will never forget what you did to restore our freedom. And today we also remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many of your comrades, who rest on French soil. They will remain forever in our hearts. On a personal note, let me confess that today I remember my grandfather on my mother’s side, who was a French resistant and was killed during the war by German soldiers. He would have loved to meet you.

The National Order of the Legion of Honor was founded by Napoleon Bonaparte more than three hundred years ago to recognize service to the French Republic. Since 2004, the French government has awarded the medal to nearly a hundred American veterans every year in ceremonies like this one.
After the ceremony, families snapped pictures of veterans who beamed as they inspected their new medals. Robert Patton of Chapel Hill was only 21 years old when he was sent to war. Patton says his most vivid memory is helping to liberate the notorious Austrian concentration camp called Mauthausen.

Robert Patton: We were the only Americans there. There were something like 20 thousand inmates that were crowded around through the open area. Not that many out because there were many who could not get out of the barracks. All of them were skin and bones.

Since then, Patton has visited Europe many times to speak about his experience during the war. After the war he had a successful career with Sears, setting up teletype networks that led to early retail computers. But Patton says his passion- and his life’s mission- has always been telling the stories of the horrors of World War Two.

Patton: My whole effort is making sure that I encourage enough people to remember the past so that it will not happen again.

Patton is a frequent guest speaker at schools, museums, and veterans groups here in the U.S., too. And now he has a new honor he can talk about.