RALEIGH — Fourteen WWII veterans from across North Carolina will gather here this week as French officials award them the Legion of Honor for their service during the war.
The men all fought on French soil in 1944 or 1945 during the liberation of France. About a decade ago, the French government decided to recognize all war veterans who contributed to the liberation.
The award is the highest honor in France and recognizes those who have served the country in some distinguished way. Napoleon Bonaparte founded the National Order of the Legion of Honor in 1802.
Hundreds of WWII veterans from across the U.S. have received the award.
Allen Evans, who lives in Chapel Hill, will be among the men who are honored Thursday. Evans was a staff sergeant with the headquarters battery in the Army’s 76th Field Artillery Battalion during the war.
Evans, now 89, can remember how France looked as Allied forces moved through the county during the final year of WWII. He saw buildings riddled with bullet holes and people devastated by years of war.
But he also remembers the way people lined the streets for soldiers. Knowing that they craved something other than canned rations, the French would toss them tomatoes along with flowers in gratitude.
It was a gesture that meant a lot to the soldiers.
“The French people were just unbelievably hospitable,” Evans said. The crowd’s enthusiasm and patriotism stick with him to this day, a rush of emotion he describes as extraordinary.
A lasting connection
Nearly 70 years later, the Legion of Honor is official recognition of the connection Evans felt at the time to the French people.
“It’s really thrilling to me,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it with a great deal of anticipation.”
Evans, who grew up in Indiana, enlisted in December 1942 because he thought he could so some good.
His was a journey that took him through Germany and Czechoslovakia, along with France.
“I’ve never regretted it,” he said. “It was cold and hot and dangerous and monotonous. It was everything that you didn’t want but it was all part of the deal.”
Tom Evans, Allen’s son, said the whole family is excited about the honor. As a little boy, he would show off his father’s mementos of the war and was always eager to know more about his service.
“It’s something that we take a lot of pride in, his service in WWII, and we always have,” Tom Evans said.
The other veterans who will receive the award are George F. Tyson, Jr., John Salop, Gerald M. Anderson, Jessie O. Bowman, Carl R. Britt, Donald F. Johnson, Joseph H. Collie, James W. Toffton, Norwood McKoy, Joseph Q. Dickerson, Richard L. Hammel, Paul E. Haney and James F. Sansom.
The French government continues to evaluate whether WWII veterans are eligible for the award. More information about the award or applications for it can be found through the French Consulate in Atlanta, Ga., at 404-495-1660.