Like many men who survived World War II, James Howell of Charlotte came home and said little about his battles.
It took getting knighted by Denis Barbet, the French consul general for the six-state Atlanta region, for Howell to spill some of his story.
He was a 20-year-old captain of a B-17 bomber when he flew two missions on D-Day on June 6, 1944, his crew bombing targets just off the beaches of Normandy, France. He flew 35 missions in all and “was glad to come home in one piece.”
Barbet chose Veterans Day 2015 to present to Howell and 17 other Carolinians who fought to liberate France that country’s highest honor: the Legion of Honor, created by Napoleon in 1802.
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As I interviewed Howell, I looked back and found his two daughters, Sue Davis and Sally Stout, leaning in – listening.
“You’ve gotten more out of him than we ever did,” Davis said.
“He never talked about the war. If we asked him anything, he’d change the subject,” Stout added about their 91-year-old father.
In that way, and many others, America’s veterans were celebrated across the region Wednesday – perhaps more than in past years.
The day was the first Veterans Day that was a holiday for Mecklenburg County employees. County Manager Dena Diorio urged them to go out and perform community service.
At Sharon Towers retirement community in Charlotte, 61 residents who are veterans – mostly from World War II, Korea and Vietnam – were honored at a luncheon featuring a brass band playing patriotic songs. There were displays of war artifacts and military photos of the veterans.
Showing what grandfather did
At Veterans Park off Central Avenue, Charlotte Bridge Home, a group that is helping the country’s newest veterans transition into civilian life, held its first Veterans Day picnic.
One of the veterans there was 73-year-old Albert Williams Jr., who in 1968 was an Army private first class specialist, a radio operator with an advisory unit in South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
On March 10, 1969, Williams and his unit were scouring the treeline for enemy Viet Cong when they were ambushed. Williams jumped for cover in a foxhole – landing on a booby trap.
The explosion injured his foot, earning him a Purple Heart medal. That ended his war, and he returned to his native New Orleans with five other medals. He married and helped raise 11 children.
These medals are important to me. I want my grandkids to be able to touch and feel and look at what their grandfather did.
Albert Williams, Vietnam veteran whose medals were lost in Hurricane Katrina
Then in 2005, as Hurricane Katrina stormed ashore, the family was forced to uproot and eventually landed in Charlotte. Among their losses: Williams’ six medals.
He applied to the VA to get them replaced and was told that would take a year. Four weeks ago, he called 12th District U.S. Rep. Alma Adams’ office and, after filling out the paperwork, got a call from an assistant that she had his medals.
“So you going to mail them to me?” Williams said he asked the assistant. “She said, ‘No, Congresswoman Adams wants to present them to you personally on Veterans Day.’ ”
Wednesday at the picnic, Adams did. Williams, with a half dozen of his 11 children and a dozen of his 24 grandchildren watching, was happy to have them back. “These medals are important to me,” he told me. “I want my grandkids to be able to touch and feel and look at what their grandfather did.”
‘This one’s for you, Dad’
James Howell, a native Virginian, appreciated getting his medal from France, too.
After World War II, he began working for Lance crackers in Richmond, then the company transferred him to Charlotte in 1957.
Over the years, only a granddaughter ever heard some of his war stories; she was assigned to write a school paper on a World War II veteran.
We are committed to commemorating the courage of these men to liberate France and to restore democracy then and to be free today. Our gratitude is eternal.
Denis Barbet, French consul general for the six-state Atlanta region
“The first question she asked: ‘Pop, were you dropping bombs on people?’ ” Howell recalled. “I told her, ‘We were trying to bomb German factories and ball-bearing plants. Remember, they were shooting at me all the time, too.’
“She said: ‘Pop, if they shot you, you wouldn’t be talking to me.’ I said, ‘Neither one of us would be talking.’ ”
All the years since that bombing, he, like many Americans who fought to liberate France, felt that country hadn’t shown sufficient appreciation for what they’d sacrificed.
Wednesday, the 18 Carolinians – like hundreds before them with the Legion of Honor medal – discovered France’s gratitude.
“We are committed to commemorating the courage of these men to liberate France and to restore democracy then and to be free today,” Barbet told me. “Our gratitude is eternal.”
Before pinning the medal to the coat lapel of each man, Barbet read his war accomplishments. Most had been flyboys, some infantrymen. As they were pinned, relatives stood and snapped photos.
Some of the men stood to receive their medals. Many were steadied by canes. At the end of the 18 sat Floyd Daughterty Jr. of Landis, there to receive the medal for his father, Floyd Sr., who died suddenly 18 months ago at 91.
Barbet handed him a medal in a box. Daugherty thanked him, then looked skyward and whispered: “This one’s for you, Dad.”
Legion of Honor recipients
James Howell, Charlotte; Herman Stroupe Jr., Asheville; Billy Welch, Hendersonville; Dudley Brown, Hendersonville; Charles Mills Jr., Charlotte; Robert Sappenfield, Mount Pleasant, S.C.; Edwin Braswell, Fayetteville; Robert Haynes, Greensboro; James Nance, Albemarle; Dwight Stephenson, Angier; Eugene Deibler, Pinehurst: James Wood, Arden; Ray Rouse, Kinston; Harold Redding, Kernersville; Glenn Farrell, Graham; Harold Frank, Mocksville; John Steinmetz, Raleigh; Floyd Daugherty Sr., Landis.