CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Veteran George Pulakos of Indian Land, S.C., has many horrific images lodged in his head from the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, but the one he remembers most vividly is that of all the bodies.
Pulakos, 90, couldn't avoid looking, having been given the task of clearing wounded and dead from the English Channel. He was serving as a surgical technician at the time, with the 331st Regiment of the 83rd Infantry Division.
"The bodies were stacked like cord wood on the beach," he recalled. "We're talking four or five feet tall."
Such were the sad memories shared during an unusual ceremony Monday at Foundation for the Carolinas that had French officials honoring six World War II vets from the Carolinas with France's highest military award, the Legion of Honor.
Two of the six are from the Charlotte area, Pulakos and 91-year-old Clyde Polk of Charlotte, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served as an armorer with the 507th Fighter Squadron of the 404th Bombardment Group.
Other honorees included: Elbert Davis of Hampstead, Dewitt Wells of Winston-Salem, David Gordon of Cary and John Harmon of Saluda, S.C. A sixth veteran, Frank Pruitt of Spartanburg, S.C., recently died so the award was given to his family.
Denis Barbet, French consul general to the Southeast United States, told the soldiers that their heroism embodies a French-American friendship that dates back to the American Revolution.
"You will be our heroes forever," Babet told the group. "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."
Babet followed his comments by pinning a medal to each of the men's lapels, and reciting in French: "In the name of the president of the French Republic, I now make you Knight in the Legion of Honor."
The Legion of Honor, created two centuries ago by Napoleon Bonaparte, is the highest distinction France can confer on a citizen or a foreigner and recognizes exceptional service to France.
All six soldiers honored Monday came to the attention of French officials through applications sent in by the men themselves or friends and family.
Consulate officials say veterans who served in France during 1944-45 are qualified for the award, as part of an effort to honor all Americans who helped liberate that nation in World War II.
Claire Collobert Angelle, press attache for the consulate, said the push to award this country's aging World War II veterans is also an effort to keep alive the memory of what Americans did "during one of France's darkest times."
Pulakos, who attended the event with his son, Dean Pulakos, said the honor was much appreciated. "But each of us can think of 101 others who should have gotten this, but never got home."
He could easily have been one of those men, having been part of the deadly June 6 D-Day landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy. Pulakos credits his survival to being among the later waves of soldiers to arrive.
"We were supposed to be treating the casualties, but mostly we had to duck and hide in the sand," he said. "The only way to describe the feeling is to say it's like that moment right before you're in a car accident, only it lasts all day.
"Somebody wants to kill you: You don't know him and he doesn't know you."
Polk is another who couldn't help but recall bodies when thinking of France. In his case, it was a battlefield in northern France "and the bodies looked like they'd been there a month or two."
"I will say that the French really treated us nice. They took us into their houses and let us spend the night and they fed us," Polk said. "They didn't have much to begin with, because everything was rationed, but they gave it to us anyway."
Pulakos, who moved to the Charlotte area last year from Erie, Pa., also has fond recollections of the French; in particular, he remembered a Frenchman along the side of the road who handed him what he thought was a glass of water.
"I gulped it down, not realizing it was like pure alcohol and it felt like flames were coming out of my head," he said. "They all laughed. I laughed, too, once I could breathe again."
The soldiers recognized Monday long ago received U.S. medals for their military service, including many Purple Hearts.
But Polk and Pulakos couldn't help but feel the French award was all the more special because it came later -- when old soldiers don't mind remembering and being remembered.
"It's really wonderful. I can't think of anything I'd appreciate more at this point in my life," Polk said. "Who knows, maybe tonight I'll put this under my pillow."