In 1944, Vicksburg, Miss., native William Fuller spent his 19th birthday crossing the English Channel into Nazi-occupied France. Nearly 69 years later, France officially thanked him.
As Fuller's grandson, I have always seen him as a hero. So when my dad, Fred, told me the man I know as "Granddad" was going to be knighted by the French government, my response was, "It's about time."
Fuller joined 10 of his fellow World War II veterans at a ceremony in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 24, where French Consul General Denis Barbet presented the Legion of Honor awards to them and designated them in the Chevalier class of the legion in front of a crowd of more than 100 at the Old Capitol Museum.
Earlier this year, French President Francois Hollande bestowed France's Legion of Honor award to distinguished surviving Allied soldiers who helped liberate France from the invading Nazi forces during WWII. The award, created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, is France's highest honor and can only be given by the nation's president.
The Legion of Honor was only bestowed on living Allied veterans, so most of the men who helped liberate France almost 70 years ago will never receive the thanks they deserved. For all of us who hold one of the living heroes dear, I would like to thank President Hollande for properly recognizing what those few surviving men gave to France in the face of such a great and evil foe.
And Hollande did it not a moment too soon.
There are barely 1 million living WWII veterans left in the U.S., about one-quarter of the number alive a decade ago. According to U.S. Veterans Administration, an average of more than 600 die every day. One of the honored Mississippi veterans, Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Gerald M. Campbell, died after President Hollande's declaration, but before he got the chance to receive his medal. His grandson, Ian Campbell, accepted the award on his behalf at the ceremony.
My grandfather joined the army at 18. He had only left the state of Mississippi once, when he went to Louisiana to visit his older sister. Southern hospitality was the only interaction he knew. While serving in Gen. George Patton's Third Army, he saw much of Europe and the worst aspects of human nature.
But of all his experiences in France, it's not tales of bullets or blood, but a story of human beauty my grandfather likes to tell most. The Third Army had just disengaged the enemy in Metz, France, and was heading north. Fuller's engineer battalion and a battalion of Army Rangers had the job of protecting the Third Army's rear.
"We laid anti-tank mines and constructed a few tank traps before we were relieved to join the rest of the 3rd Army. My squad was preparing a tank trap in the center of a village. We would drill three 8-inch diameter holes about eight or ten feet deep and about eight feet apart across the road, then fill the holes with TNT. When exploded, it would create a deep crater that tanks could not cross," Fuller wrote in his memoirs.
In one small village, they laid one tank trap about 10 feet from a house where a young mother and two small children lived. It was the dead of winter, with deep snow everywhere and temperatures hovering around zero. If the troops detonated the 150 pounds of TNT they laid, that house and everything inside would be rubble. That mother and her children, if still alive, would be homeless.
In spite of this, the woman invited the soldiers into her house for tea and cookies when they were done.
"War is hell, but sometimes it brings out the true greatness in people," Fuller wrote. "When we were finished, we turned the exploded trap over to others. We heard later that the trap did not have to be used."
Like his memories of the war, my grandfather prefers to focus on personal connections today. Even now that he's a Chevalier in the Legion of Honor, he doesn't seem to realize how many people truly see him as a hero.
"You don't have to call me Sir William. I've always just been Bill," Fuller said.
Jacob Fuller is a reporter for The Destin Log.