87-year-old Ohioans fought on French soil in 1944Tuesday, February 1, 2011 02:52 AM
By Joe Hallett THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Two 87-year-old Ohioans refused to call themselves war heroes yesterday, even after the governments of the United States and France officially awarded them that distinction.
"I am not a hero, but I served with a mass of heroes, and one of them is here with me today," Bob Garrett said during a Statehouse ceremony, referring to his friend, Charles Spray.
As tears welled in his eyes and his voice quivered, Spray said, "I feel very humbled. I think an award should be given to those who didn't come home."
Garrett, of Marietta, and Spray, of Barberton, were awarded France's highest foreign award, the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal, for fighting to liberate France and defeat Nazi Germany during World War II. Each man already had received a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and other military honors from the U.S. government."The tenacity and valor of these men and all of those who fought beside them have allowed the French people to be free of tyranny and fear," said honorary French Consul General Anne Cappel, executive director of the European-American Chamber of Commerce in Cincinnati, who was appointed to represent the French government at the ceremony.
"To the French people," she said to Garrett and Spray, "you are heroes."
The two veterans were part of American invasion forces and both were injured in combat - Garrett in Normandy in June 1944, and Spray at St. Gilles, France, a month later.
With the number of surviving American World War II veterans rapidly diminishing, the French government has aggressively sought to honor those who fought on French soil. In November, nine other Ohio veterans received the same recognition during a Statehouse ceremony.
Gov. John Kasich, participating in the ceremony sponsored by the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, thanked Garrett and Spray for "risking your life, shedding your blood and standing up for free men and women."
To a class of advanced history students attending the ceremony from Centennial High School in Columbus, Kasich advised that they should keep heroism in perspective, noting that Garrett and Spray, like many military heroes, did not readily talk about their war experiences.
"They didn't get into the end zone and pound their chests and raise their fingers to the sky," Kasich said. "That's not what humility is."
Henry DeGrand, 18, a Centennial senior, said he felt honored to be invited.
"Seeing these people receive the most prestigious French recognition signifies that we're willing to stand up for other people and that they were able to put their lives on the line for something bigger than their own nationality," DeGrand said.
Glad to see that these guys are getting their due respect and honor owed to them. Its a shame that it has taken so long but I guess better late than never. Recently I posted of the passing of MAJ (ret) Dick Winters from The Band of Brothers fame. He was reportedly denied a MOH for his actions on D Day due to some bureaucratic bull crap from Eisenhower's headquarters. There had been a renewed interest in getting that honor bestowed upon him after the miniseries hit and many of his friends and admirers realized there could be a lot of public support for it, but it never happened. At least some of these aging warriors can enjoy their moment of glory before they pass into everlasting glory.
It seems that foreign nations that we helped in WWII have been far more generous in their awarding of medals that we have to our own troops sometimes. One of the national guard units I was assigned to at one time (the 148th Infantry "The Liberators of Manilla") wore both a US Presidential Unit Citation and a Phillipine Republic Presidential Citation from actions in WW2 (kind of admit I felt a bit silly wearing it since I wasn't even alive then).
We give France a hard time for its (lack of perceived) role in WW2, but in truth France was hampered by many factors in WW2. They lost millions of young men during "The Great War" and were just getting back on their feet themselves when Hitler came knocking. French units did fight vailiantly at times and the French Resistance was far from a joke as some people would have you believe. Most importantly, after the war the French did take the time to recognize the sacrifices the Americans made to their country by bestowing awards such as these and permanently allowing the internment of US servicemen who died under an American flag on their native soil. They did this while still picking up the pieces of their own society after the second major war fought in their own country in a quarter of a century.
Paratrooper who was just awarded the Medal of Honor in December? Bet many of you can't without hitting the link (those of you from non-US territories are exempt). Thats sad since there has only been one living recipient in the War on Terror and he is it. During WW2 there were hundreds. Even our current heroes fall out of memory quickly.
Yet for many of these warriors, the greatest honor we can give them is not a piece of ribbon with shiny metal attached to it...but respect. The respect that comes with acknowledging their service at times other than we its deemed "appropriate" such a Veterans or Memorial day.
Next time you see that old man living down the street who has a veteran bumper sticker on his rascal scooter... go say thanks. Next time you drive home from guard or reserve drill and stop somewhere and have a "old timer" bend your ear..give a listen. Maybe someday someone from a younger generation will do you the honor of giving you that gift of dignity in your golden years.