French government says 'Thank you' to American veterans

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By John Barnhart

    Bernard Marie has hosted a D-Day/World War II dinner every year for 29 years on the anniversary of D-Day. The number of living veterans dwindles and the men are getting increasingly frail. Nevertheless 310 people packed the dining room at Roanoke’s Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center Thursday evening.

    Marie is a D-Day veteran, of sorts, himself. He was a young child living in one of the seaside towns in Normandy when Allied troops landed the morning of June 6, 1944.
    In preparation for the event, the Convention Center had hoisted three national flags on its three flags out front — American, British and French. This was in recognition of the fact that the guests of honor included Colonel Jacques Aragones, a French Marine, and Lieutenant Colonel Helen Bowman, a British Army Officer.
    Col. Aragones is the military attaché at the French Embassy and was here to say “Thank you” from the French government to three D-Day veterans, Mills Hobbs, John Kessler and Chuck Neighbor. The three are veterans of D-Day, the liberation of St. Lô and the Battle of the Bulge.
    The “Thank you” came in the form of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur medals. The Légion d’Honneur, which comes in four ranks, is France’s highest award. It was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.
    According to Col. Aragones, all military awards had been abolished by the French revolutionary government. Napoleon established this medal because he felt there should be a way to recognize people for distinguished service. In addition to being awarded to French citizens, it is awarded to foreigners for distinguished service to France. In this case, the three American veterans were recognized for their service in liberating France from Nazi occupation and restoring French democracy. Every Légion d’Honneur medal must be personally authorized by the president of France.
    The actual presentation of the medal is always done in French: Au nom du president de la republique, nous vous remettons les insignes de Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. (In the name of the president of the republic, we remit to you the insignia of Knight of the Legion of Honor.)
    “Staff Sergeant Hobbs,” Col. Aragones said to Mills Hobbs. “As a squad leader you distinguished yourself in combat and contributed to the strength and effectiveness of your unit. The courage, initiative and discipline you demonstrated throughout long periods of combat do great honor to you.”    
    He mentioned one point when Hobbs distinguished himself during a counter-attack by six German tanks. Hobbs received two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts during the war.
    “As a paratrooper and infantry platoon leader with the 509th U. S. paratroopers battalion, you took part with the allied forces in Operation Dragoon in Provence on August 15, 1944,” Col. Aragones said to John Kessler. “Your participation in that operation earned you the French Croix de Guerre with silver star. Moreover, you participated in the campaigns of North Africa, Italy, Belgium and Germany. You were awarded the Bronze star for you heroic actions in combat in Belgium in December, 1944.”
    “You landed at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, with the 116th Infantry Battalion and subsequently you took part in combats  for the liberation of the towns of Colleville, St. Clair and St. Lô,” Col. Aragones said to Charles Neighbors. “It is during that last battle that you assisted in the evacuation of French civilians from the farm where they had found refuge. You got wounded on July 13 as you escorted a family with their children to find them a safe venue.”
    Col. Aragones is a French Marine and his medals include the French Officier de la Légion d’Honneur and the American Bronze Star. The Bronze Star came from his service in Afghanistan as the first French Commander, under U. S. command, in Kapisa Province in 2008. He’s a paratrooper and, in addition to his French jumpmaster wings, wears British and German parachutist wings and an American jumpmaster badge.
    In addition to his combat deployment to Afghanistan, he’s deployed to Gabon, the former Yugoslavia, and had three deployments to the Central African Republic. He’s also served as French liaison officer to the U. S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which has command of U. S. forces in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan
    During the program Nathan Kranowski spoke as a living example of what D-Day meant. He was a small child living in Paris during the Nazi occupation. He is Jewish.
    “His parents were taken by the French police, and they delivered them to the Gestapo,” Marie said, introducing Kranowski.
    Kranowski said his parents came to Paris before the war. They were arrested in 1942 and held briefly in a French concentration camp.
    “Then they were taken to Auschwitz where they were killed on arrival,” he said.
    Kranowski survived because he was one of 30 children who were hidden in Brittany, in the northwest of France. He posed as a Catholic boy until the area was liberated by allied troops.
    Kranowski thanked the assembled veterans “who fought so bravely to free France and all the rest of Europe from the Nazis.”
    “If not for them [the allied soldiers] the Nazis would have won,” he concluded.
    Lt. Col. Bowman, another speaker, addressed British losses on D-Day and mentioned the successful efforts of British intelligence to intercept German radio message traffic. She said that, as a result, copies of messages meant for Hitler landed on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s desk before Hitler got them.
    Don Englar gave a personal experience of D-Day. Englar was coxswain on an LCVP. He was the man who actually drove the boat and made the 10 mile trip from the troop ships to the beach multiple times that day.
    “I think most of the guys in my first load were killed,” he said.
    He described scenes of carnage on his later trips — bodies and body parts floating in the water. During one trip, he saw his best friend, the gunner on the LCVP, cut in half by a shell.
    Englar was also wounded during the day. Marie, in introducing him, noted that Englar was shot in the face, but kept doing his job.
    The evening included remarks from the Pacific Theater. Walter Armstrong served on a submarine, the USS Tirante (SS-420), a Tench Class submarine.
    Armstrong enlisted in the Navy in 1942 because the Army — with the prospect of being in a trench — didn’t appeal to him. After boot camp, a man came to the base recruiting volunteers for submarines.
    “Being a country boy, I didn’t know what one was,” Armstrong said.
    However, the extra $50 per month he would earn appealed to him and he signed up.
    The Tirante was a busy submarine, with a bold commander who won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Armstrong recalled a time when the sub penetrated a harbor and sank three Japanese ships at their berths.
    Armstrong said the U. S. lost 52 subs in the Pacific. Normally, when a sub was sunk, it took its entire crew with it.
    “When one went, we all went,” Armstrong said. “You didn’t have to worry about losing your buddy because we all went together.”
    Next year’s D-Day/World War II dinner, to be held on June 6, 2014, will be the 30th, and the last.