CARY, NC — On June 6, 1944, David Gordon stood in front of a wooden landing-craft door near Normandy, France, listening to the rap-tap-tap of artillery shells in the distance.
He listened and he knew there was nowhere to go but out – out into the water, onto the beach and up the hill – toward the German guns.
So Gordon, now 89, a member of the 30th Infantry Division, waded into the waves and toward the first of many fights and the first of many wounds, propelled by patriotism and duty and the inexorable drop of a big, wooden door.
Monday, almost 70 years later, the French consulate will thank Gordon and five other American soldiers who fought in France during World War II by bestowing on them its highest honor, the French Legion of Honor. Gordon and the others, all from the Carolinas, will be knighted as chevaliers of the French Legion of Honor at a ceremony Monday afternoon in Charlotte.
The French government awards the Legion of Honor to World War II veterans who fought to secure the liberation of France between 1944 and 1945 in one of four major military campaigns at Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or Northern France.
About 100 people are nominated for the award each year, said Claire Collobert Angelle, press attaché for the Consulate General of France in Atlanta. Special consideration is given to those with distinguished service records.
The Legion of Honor is not given posthumously, but Angelle said the government will continue to award it as long as World War II veterans are living.
“I think for the amount of courage that they showed, it is never too late to show recognition,” she said.
For his service in World War II, Gordon received five Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. He would have received a sixth Purple Heart, he said, but he bandaged his last injury himself.
Young, naïve, patriotic
Gordon said he mostly considers himself lucky. When he enlisted in the Army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was “young, naive and very patriotic,” he said, and agreed to go wherever he was assigned. A New Jersey native attending college in Illinois, Gordon was used to frequent travel.
He excelled in basic training and was chosen for the Army Specialized Training Program. But while waiting for the train to take him to officers’ training, he was thrust from “the top of the barrel to the bottom,” he said. The Army had canceled his program, and his unit had already shipped out. He was placed with the 30th Infantry Division, composed of soldiers from the Carolinas and Tennessee, and sent overseas immediately.
The days he spent in the hospital were the only ones during the war he slept in a bed, he said. At Normandy, he still had bandages on his wrist, leg and chest when he was sent back to the front lines.
“The doctor asked me, ‘How you doing, soldier?’” Gordon said. “I said, ‘OK.” Then he said, ‘Good, you are shipping out.’”
From Normandy across northern France, Belgium and Holland, Gordon fought in foxholes and on fields, moving east toward the Elbe River as the Germans ceded ground. By the war’s end, the German army gave his division the nickname “Roosevelt’s SS troops,” he said.
In Germany, he saw Jews en route to a death camp crammed into a train so tightly they couldn’t sit down, and Polish laborers at a work camp who were so hungry that they ate raw flour.
An armor-piercing bullet sent his “body spinning around like a top” as he was walking down a road in Aachen, the first large German city captured by the Allies. As he lay prone on the ground, machine gun bullets drilled holes into the fence next to where he had stood moments before, he said.
In another battle in Germany, he was thrown over a fence and knocked unconscious by the force of an exploding bomb.
“My buddies said they couldn’t believe I was still alive,” he said.
In March, Gordon will be 90. After the war, he got married, earned a doctorate in organic chemistry from Georgia Tech, and had four children, now grown. He and Harriet, his wife of 66 years, live in Cary.
“I’m very grateful,” said Harriet Gordon, 84. “We have lived a very interesting life together.”
Legion of Honor recipients
David Gordon of Cary, NC
Elbert Davis of Hampstead, NC
Clyde Polk of Charlotte, NC
Dewitt Wells of Winston-Salem, NC
George Pulakos of Fort Mill
John Harmon of Saluda
Reach Paytes at (919) 836-4918