Tears welled among family members and friends at the VFW Post in Indian Trail on Wednesday, as six North Carolina veterans of World War II received France’s highest honor for risking their lives on French soil.
“You are true heroes,” France’s consul general for the Southeastern U.S. told the five living veterans and the family of deceased veteran Merle Hammersley of Durham. “You will be our heroes forever. We, the French, will never forget what you did to restore our freedoms.”
Consul General Louis de Corail pinned Legion of Honor medals — France’s highest military and civilian merit for service to the country — on the men and later clinked champagne glasses with some of them and their families.
“You illustrated with your courage the friendship and shared values that so profoundly bind our two nations,” de Corail, who is based in Atlanta, told the veterans. “We are gathered here to honor you.”
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Veteran Jerome Levin of Charlotte said he was honored to receive the Legion of Honor but that the entire United States also deserved the recognition for its sacrifices during the war.
Levin, a flight engineer on a B-24, flew 35 missions in France and other parts of Europe and later was president of Lebos, the Charlotte-based Western clothing and shoe company his father founded in 1923.
”It wasn’t just one individual,” Levin told the Observer in an interview after the ceremony.
De Corail also pinned Legion of Honor medals on Joseph Chall of Pittsboro, Lewis Easterling of Mint Hill, Staley Johnson of Kannapolis and William Simpson of Raleigh.
Hammersley’s family accepted the medal on the late Durham veteran’s behalf.
His daughter, Jacqueline Hammersley, choked back tears recalling to the Observer how her dad arrived at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and then served in every other Allied campaign through France and into Belgium. He also drove for U.S. Gen. George Patton, she said.
Her father died on June 6, 2017, the anniversary of D-Day, she said.
“It means so many things,” she said. “To have him recognized for all that he did is such an honor.”
Jacqueline Hammersley said of her dad: “He was such a good man. He would be very humbled.”