Philippe Ardanaz, an ambassador from France, stood before five weathered World War II veterans from North Carolina on Tuesday and offered thanks for service nearly 70 years past.
Each had left their homes as young men to roam the French countryside, warding off German Nazis. For their bravery, Ardanaz pinned them with medals at a small ceremony at the N.C. Museum of History.
“In blood and suffering, the soldiers of our two countries fought side by side to protect the free world,” said Ardanaz, France's diplomat to six states in the Southeast including North Carolina. “You helped our country recover its liberty.”
The five veterans traveled to Raleigh from around the state: Adrian Haynes of Charlotte, Mark Sumner of Chapel Hill, Alfred Gagliano of Brevard, Alfred Alvarez of Fayetteville and Arnold Lambert of West End. The youngest was 84, the oldest 90.
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France has been trying to extend its gratitude to World War II veterans for several years. Many are mailed a simple certificate. For others, like the five that gathered Tuesday, their combat sacrifices earned France's highest honor bestowed on foreigners.
“The Legion of Honor,” created by Napoleon in 1802, is a decoration awarded to those who show the highest level of sacrifice to France and must be awarded by the nation's president. Ardanaz said he's only given out a half-dozen or so since he became ambassador three years ago.
Each of the five veterans had been decorated by the U.S. government. Pins and ribbons and stripes covered their blazers, showing this nation's thanks for their military service. For several, though, it was the first time they'd heard gratitude from the French for their sacrifice.
“I always felt appreciated when I was on French soil, but it's nice to hear it today,” said Gagliano, an Army veteran who spent nearly three years in Europe after his company landed in France's Normandy Beach in June 1944.
Gagliano, 90, helped liberate the town of St. Lo, the battle that inspired the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Gagliano saved a comrade by dragging him to safety as enemy fire whirred overhead.
Since the war, Gagliano built a family, a career and happier memories. He settled in the mountain town of Brevard and passes his days helping organize events at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. These days, he'd rather tell a joke than answer a question about his combat in Europe.
His wife and three of his sons flanked him Tuesday as the French government honored him.
Gagliano had a thanks to make of his own. He turned to Phyllis Gagliano, his wife of more than 65 years who had waited for him to return home after the war, and told her how much he appreciated her.