Some of the aging warriors could stand with creaky knees to receive their honor from the French consul, some had to sit. One couldn’t come at all, and another, Leon E. Bernard of Greensboro, died last summer. His daughter, Candy, came instead.
In the end, six World War II veterans traveled to Raleigh on Tuesday from various corners of the state to receive France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, for their roles in liberating that country 70 years ago.
More than 200 veterans, family members, friends and politicians jammed the House chamber of the State Capitol to hear the consul general of France in Atlanta, Denis Barbet, thank the men in his lilting accent and reflect on their iconic era of Franco-American cooperation.
Barbet read off the men’s records of service, their jobs in the war, the battles they fought in and the list of medals that each had been awarded. Then he gave them what could well be their final medal.
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It’s a good one, even if turns out to be the last, said Harold Eatman, 99, of Matthews.
“I feel humbled, and it’s a great honor,” said Eatman, after the question was repeated several times to overcome his fading hearing. “It’s nice to know people haven’t forgotten. And it’s important, because the reason we have wars is we forget the last one.”
Eatman was a paratrooper. By the time he floated down behind enemy lines during the Normandy invasion, he already had two combat jumps under his belt. He later notched a fourth.
They all had stories worth a book apiece. Like James Seitzer, now an unassuming 90-year-old Chapel Hill resident, who helped protect a French tank unit as it seized a key city, then later had his nose nearly sheared off by shrapnel but returned to fight along the German border just weeks later. He was wounded twice.
Or Julien Highsmith of Brasstown, who enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 15 and refused an early discharge after officers discovered how old he was. Then, at the seasoned age of 16, he piloted a landing craft in the D-Day Invasion on June 6, 1944.
N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall told the men that the generations coming after theirs had not only easier lives but freedom itself because of them.
“I got to grow up in one of the best times in world history thanks to you,” Marshall said. “You saved untold millions of people from tyranny, and you made the world a far better place.
“You did so much, and nowadays I don’t think young people can really comprehend how close we were to losing freedom in this world,” she said.
Director of the N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs Ilario Pantano, himself a combat veteran, alluded to the terrorist attacks in France in January and called the older veterans a bridge not only between the two nations but between the conflicts then and now.
“Today, we are reminded, as the French were reminded, as we all have been reminded, that darkness still exists on this Earth, doesn’t it?” Pantano said.
Barbet talked about the attacks more directly, and said the response to them by the U.S. government and from U.S. citizens was evidence that ties between the two countries remain vital. He thanked all Americans who shared in France’s mourning and those who participated in the silent march in Raleigh on Jan. 11.
Then he looked out again at the men who had come to help his country so many years ago.
“Dear veterans, your courageous service of 70 years ago will never be forgotten,” he said. “And today I am here to say on behalf of the French people, you are our heroes, you will forever be our heroes, and we will always be faithful to you, all of you.”