Journalism icon Tom Brokaw has called them the Greatest Generation that ever lived. Some were 18 or 20, others 22, at the time they changed the course of history.
On Feb. 12 at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum, a group of World War II veterans received the French Legion of Honor – the highest distinction a French or foreign citizen can receive from France. The tribute honored six WWII veterans who received the medal that day and 11 others who had already been inducted; celebrated the alliance France and the United States have always enjoyed; and gave students the incredible opportunity to meet these men – heroes who were willing to give everything for freedom.
The Legion of Honor, “Légion d’Honneur,” created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, recognizes exceptional service to France. In 2004, France decided to grant all surviving U.S. veterans who fought in France to liberate it from Nazi occupation the Legion of Honor.
“We will never forget what you did for us,” said French Consulate Philippe Létrilliart, who is from Normandy and pinned the medal onto their jackets during the induction.
The veterans who received the French Legion of Honor at the ceremony are: Patsy Capasso, Kenneth Elkins, George Greenberg, Frank Feeley, Julian Wohlfeld and John Gellick, whose son Michael Gellick accepted the medal on his behalf, since he passed away recently.
Florida is home to the largest WW II veteran population and more than 1,500 veterans have received the Legion of Honor during ceremonies throughout the state. The tribute at FIU included students from Honors College Professor John Bailly’s French Study Abroad course.
Every summer Bailly and his students journey across France, visiting historic World War II sites; they often meet with resistance fighters and holocaust survivors while there.
Before the ceremony began, the students chatted one-on-one with the veterans.
“It’s a very eye-opening experience,” said Audriana Rodriguez, a student in Bailly’s class. “We realize, they [the veterans] paid the price for our freedom.”
Classmate Yina Cabrera shared a lively conversation with veteran Leonard Wolf. “He greeted us with a joke, and he mentioned two books [we should read] by Dale Carnegie.” Carnegie was a 20th century American writer and lecturer who developed famous courses in self-improvement.
Wolf also gave them personal advice: “stop worrying, be confident and don’t lose faith.” He told them about an experience in which he miraculously left a battle unscathed.
Cabrera said spending time with a holocaust survivor during the study abroad trip also impacted her life. “It really affects you as a person. It puts life into perspective and we realize how lucky we are.”
The veterans likewise count their blessings and live honoring the memory of those who were lost during the war that ended 71 years ago. Greenberg, who received the medal at the ceremony, said the honor made him think about when he visited the Normandy American Cemetery.
“All I thought about was the waste [of the fallen soldiers’ lives]. You can’t walk out of there without crying.”
“I appreciate it more now than ever,” Wohlfeld said. He recalls when he first got back home after the war and he got off the train station, no one said ‘thank you, soldier.’
For a while, it seemed their efforts had gone unnoticed.
“We are here to celebrate you gentlemen, what you did for France, Europe and democracy,” Létrilliart said. “The very meaning of this gathering today is to pass this memory.”
Feeley really enjoyed getting to meet students as well.
“I talked to the students and the students talked to me, they asked questions. I talked about the war and they told me some of their stuff, too, and what they’re doing – I’m glad I came.”
“At the base, it’s about the connection between veterans and students,” Bailly said. “What these men fought for, students have a connection to it. The freedom we have today, the lives we live are indebted to the Greatest Generation. These men made these sacrifices for human rights, for dignity, and we have the responsibility to take it, run with it and preserve it.”