Orange County

7 WWII vets from NC earn France’s highest honor

– The searing hot, jagged chunk of shrapnel came from the left, entered just below his left eye, sheared off most of his nose and left it dangling from his face, then exited under his right eye.

That was the first time James D. Seitzer was wounded. And in the random lottery of combat, maybe it saved his life. Or maybe it didn’t and something else did.

On Tuesday Seitzer, 90, who now lives in Chapel Hill, will join six other World War II veterans from North Carolina in a ceremony at the State Capitol in Raleigh. France’s Consul General in Atlanta, Denis Barbet, will bestow on them his country’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, for their roles in helping free France from its German occupiers.

Seitzer was almost killed several times during the war, but survived to return to his native Pennsylvania, where he met his wife, B.J. (short for Betty Jane), in college. He worked in steel sales for several decades, including the period after they moved to North Carolina in 1978.

B.J. won’t get to see him accept the high honor from the French. She died unexpectedly two weeks ago. They had been married 65 years.

Seitzer was a bit surprised to get the call recently from a French diplomat about the honor. He thinks he’s receiving it because his unit, Company E, 324th Infantry Regiment, 44th Infantry Division, played a role in the liberation of Strasbourg, a huge symbolic victory for the French.

Early in the war, the French military had been humiliated by the Germans and their country occupied. But by late November 1944, the momentum was shifting and Allied troops had begun their push into Germany. Allied forces commanders assigned French units to take Strasbourg, a regional capital that sits on the Rhine River at the German border.

Seitzer’s infantry unit had been assigned to protect the French tanks that led the assault.

“They had tanks but no infantry, so we were their infantry support,” he said. “If you had tanks and no infantry support, you got knocked out by other infantry.”

He recalls a thrust into the city that happened so quickly, it took days for the German army to realize it had happened. His unit kept capturing German soldiers returning to the city from leave, unaware that it had been captured.

The liberation was a proud moment for France, and helped restore the honor of its military.

Less than two weeks after the Strasbourg victory, on Dec. 2, 1944, Seitzer was wounded and evacuated by air to a hospital in England.

There surgeons reattached his nose. It’s now hard to tell where he was hit, but he has had difficulty breathing through it properly for 70 years.

“That’s the problem with wars,” he said. “They linger.”

While recuperating, he missed the Battle of the Bulge with his unit, avoiding what seems like a particularly good chance of being killed. The fighting, though, was generally so bad during that stretch of the war, it’s hard to say he dodged anything.

Still, given the seriousness of the wound, he was back quickly, rejoining his unit Feb. 11. And as odd as it seems, that sounded good to him. He didn’t want to stay in the hospital so long that he got reassigned to a different unit as a replacement.

“Almost everybody in our outfit got wounded at least once, and after they fixed you up, you really wanted to get back to your unit because replacements got killed fast,” he said.

Casualties were almost unimaginably heavy in that part of the war, and the way the soldiers saw it, no one was more likely to die than a new replacement to a unit. At one point, a whole truckload of replacements for E Company was apparently hit by a large artillery shell and all of them, perhaps 20 men, were killed on the spot.

Another time, a fresh replacement was standing with an old-timer when another shell came screaming in.

The experienced soldier dove for cover, but the new guy just stood there, curious to see what the noise was. It was the last thing he heard.

“A lot of times if you were a replacement, it was just a matter of staying alive for a couple of days and you’d be OK,” Seitzer said.

The second time he was wounded, Seitzer was running a communications wire. The wires were constantly being cut or blown apart in the fighting, and for awhile, it was part of his job to fix them.

When he felt the rifle bullet hit his left arm, he looked down and saw the entry and exit hole through the thick layers of clothing he had donned to fight the February chill, and thought he had a bad wound. But the bullet had only cut a deep groove.

In the end, after months of hard combat, the E Company made its way down into Italy. Then, on May 8, came the official end of the war in Europe. They could finally go home.

Seitzer survived, and went on to not only a lengthy life, but a good one. He and B.J. – a long-time volunteer at the Durham County Library – had three children, plenty of grandchildren, and saw the world. They visited 54 countries in their 65 years of marriage, and even retraced some of E Company’s route, remembering what it was like to help liberate France and end the war.

Now France is going to remember him.