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On Bastille Day, French government says ‘merci’ to 4 American World War II veterans

Fireworks erupted in Paris on Bastille Day to celebrate liberty, equality and fraternity as the French government bestowed the Legion of Honor medal to four American veterans of World War II who fought the Nazis and saved France from being overrun and occupied during a ceremony at the French ambassador’s home in Washington, D.C.

American war veterans David Bailey, Ernest Marvel, Leslie Simmler and Benjamin Portaro were honored with France’s highest award.

“As a member of the 106th Infantry Division, he was part of the resistance support troops who succeeded in slowing down and even stopping the German advance,” a French announcer said, describing David Bailey of Bluefield, West Virginia, who first landed in Normandy and then fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

“I’m the oldest veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. That happened in 1944. And I’m 100 years old,” Bailey told Fox News after the ceremony. “It wasn’t very pleasant. We landed on the beach and … in the worst world, and it wasn’t very, very pleasant.”

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Ernest Marvel of Frankford, Delaware, helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp.

“In April of 1944, Private First Class Ernest Marvel joined the 45th Infantry Division. He was given the task of launching rockets against enemy tanks. After heavy fighting, his unit pushed the Nazis out of France,” the announcer stated before French Ambassador Philippe Etienne placed a medal around Marvel’s neck and kissed him on both cheeks.

Marvel’s granddaughter, Willia Peoples, recalled her grandfather telling her of passing his brother on the street in Germany, saluting him and not recognizing him in his uniform since they had both been deployed for two years. They both made it home to their family dairy farm, where his sisters had kept the family farm running. Marvel traveled to Europe by boat.

A man dressed as a U.S. soldier looks at the site of the Battle of the Bulge before a ceremony at the Mardasson World War II memorial monument in Bastogne, Dec. 18, 2004. 

“We went by the Statue of Liberty, and all that was in our minds was we might never see it again, but we made it back — a lot of us,” Marvel told Fox.

“Sniper rifleman Leslie Simmler of West Chester, Pennsylvania, landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy with the 79th Infantry Division …”

Simmler, whose unit succeeded in liberating Sarre-Union before entering Sarreguemines in December 1944,  joined Marvel and Bailey as they received their medals at the French Embassy in Washington.

“I don’t want to make any more veterans. No, no more wars,” Simmler said while sipping from a glass of French champagne and wearing his medal.

Benjamin Portaro of Anmoore, West Virginia, came ashore in Cherbourg, France, a few months after D-Day and served under General George S Patton. Mr. Portaro was held prisoner in the German camp of Stalag XIIA from January 1945 to April 1945. 

He escaped with a fellow prisoner and took refuge in the woods until the arrival of American troops, according to a statement from the French Embassy. Portaro could not make the journey to Washington to receive his Legion of Honor medal, first awarded to French troops by Napoleon.

Veteran Harry Whisler's war medals, including the French Knights of the Legion of Honour. Benjamin Portaro of Anmoore, West Virginia, came ashore in Cherbourg, France, a few months after D-Day and served under General George S Patton. Mr. Portaro was held prisoner in the German camp of Stalag XIIA from January 1945 to April 1945. He escaped with a fellow prisoner and took refuge in the woods until the arrival of American troops, according to a statement from the French Embassy. Portaro could not make the journey to Washington to receive his Legion of Honor medal, first awarded to French troops by Napoleon.

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“It was meant to express their gratitude of the nation for the courage of our soldiers,” Etienne said before the ceremony. “The contribution of young American citizens, the sacrifice of many of them for the liberation of Europe and of France. So, on this day, we celebrate our freedom, and we want to express our gratitude to those Americans.”

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman added, “The Legion of Honor is France’s highest honor. And so for them to bestow such an honor on these … gentlemen speaks to the depth and the historical commitment between our two countries to fight for freedom.

During the ceremony, there was a reminder that war is still raging in Europe. A replica of the Statue of Liberty was draped by the Ukrainian flag in front of the French ambassador’s home in Washington.

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