The French Embassy hosted a fine lunch Thursday for five veterans of D-Day, as they gathered before leaving for France where they will all receive the Legion d'Honneur, that country's highest honor.
The five vets briefly hammed it up for the still cameras outside the embassy doors before leaving, flashing V for victory fingers a la Churchill. Before they did, three of them were kind enough to sit down with me and tell their stories.
All these men fought with distinction and several had been honored by the US for their service. You'll see the French Embassy's summaries of their service below, as well as four videos I shot today.
Their tales hit close to the bone for me. My grandfather, Edgar Clark, earned a Croix de Guerre as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes. He was one of those vets who refused to talk about his service much, usually waving a hand at me with an irritated and cranky look on his face when I tried to pry something out of him. He was what McCarthyites called a "pre-mature anti-fascist." He joined the British Navy in 1939 to help move goods to a beleaguered Britain. He and a man named Tex were the only survivors from one ship torpedoed from under him. Later, grandfather hit the beaches at Anzio, where he was badly wounded. But the tale of how Eddie Clark and a friend held Strasbourg, France from the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge is worth retelling.
"He and a colleague, Vic Dallaire, didn't like the idea of abandoning their French friends, especially when Yanks set up machine gun positions along the road to make sure the French wouldn't leave," a friend of his wrote in a letter to the Washington Post after grandfather died.
Dallaire and Clark turned out newspapers in English, French and German with the help of the French Resistance. After several days, they heard marching troops. "They peeked through a crack in the shutter to see a one-armed French colonel on a white horse leading a column of Moroccan troops down the street. The French had arrived.
"In gratitude for their act of bravery, Strasbourg renamed one of its boulevards Avenue des Stars and Stripes. The Army brass mumbled about court-martialing the pair for disobeying orders until the French government awarded them the Croix de Guerre for having prevented panic in the city. At that point the Army reconsidered and awarded them the Bronze Star," wrote my grandfather's friend, Paul Green.
The five men who flew to France on Thursday were of the same mettle. It's been 65 years since they risked all for their families, friends and the allied countries. Let's bow our heads in thanks.
Here are the videos I shot and the short bios provided by the French Embassy:
Burnett Bartley Burnett Bartley took part in the D-Day landing. For 264 consecutive days, he fought with the 35th Infantry Division, in which more than 25,000 soldiers would lose their lives. During a battle to liberate the town of Destry, he was wounded in the throat; his vocal cards were severed and the effects have endured to this day. Mr. Bartley particularly distinguished himself during the war by his behavior, his courage and his keen judgment, as attested by the honors bestowed upon him by U.S. military officials.
William Dabney Assigned to the 320th Anti-Aricraft Barrage Balloon Battalion at age 17, Corporal William Dabney took part in the D-Day Landing with his unit. The 320th was the first exclusively African-American unit to fight in World War II. On that day, Corporal Dabney and his group were trapped by enemy fire for several hours. His mission consisted of intercepting enemy air assaults using low-altitude balloons loaded with explosives while allowing Allies to pass freely. Recognized for his leadership, he continued to carry out his mission at sensitive sites throughout France, Holland and Belgium.
Elmer De Lucia Elmer de Lucia landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day with the 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion. During this operation he saw dozens of his friends die; he witnessed the beach become a veritable mass grave, with hundreds of young soldiers mowed down by enemy fire. With his company, he spent 313 days in Normandy, including 60 consecutive days without a day of rest. He fought in five major campaigns (Normandy, Northern France, the Rhineland, the Ardennes and Central Europe), earning five Bronze Stars. Twice wounded in action, in France in October 1944 and in Germany in March 1945, he also received the Purple Heart.
James Huston An intelligence officer with the 3rd Battalion, 134th Regiment of the 35th Infantry Division, Jim Huston participated in the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach. During his first battle, in Saint-Lô, with a five-man patrol he took Hill 122, a heavily fortified and mined position occupied by the enemy. This act earned him the Croix de Guerre avec Palme. He subsequently served as a commander when his unit crossed northern France toward Nancy. He then led the battalion that crossed the Meurthe as an Operations Officer. He carried out the attack and capture of Malzeville, east of Nancy, in order to establish a bridgehead for the region. His strategic abilities, sharp analyses and personal involvement during his command of this action earned Jim Huston a Bronze Star.
Nathan Kline Nathan Kline was 18 when he enlisted in the army in 1942. After months of training, he was assigned to the 323rd Bomb Group of the 9th Air Force as a bombardier/navigator on a B-23. He took part in the D-Day landing, with subsequent missions taking him to Reims, Chartres, the Belgian border and, in May 1945, Valenciennes. In all, he carried out no fewer than 65 bombing missions during WWII. It was during the battle of the Ardennes that his plane was hit twice. Without abandoning his position, he continued bombing his target until the action was successful. He provided first aid to his radio operator who was wounded before returning to his navigator post and bringing the plane back down into Allied territory. For this courageous action, which was decisive to the outcome of the battle, he was decorated, among other things, with one of the most prestigious medals of the U.S. Armed Forces the Distinguished Flying Cross.