They traveled across the seas to say thanks and offer a special salute.
As Americans paused Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when roughly 80,000 U.S. soldiers joined the Allies to storm the Nazi-occupied beaches of France, a delegation from the French nation visited the State House to honor former S.C. soldiers whose sacrifices they still hold sacred.
The consul general of France in Atlanta, Denis Barbet, awarded eight World War II veterans from South Carolina the insignia of Knight in the National Order of the Legion as part of the 70th anniversary recognition Friday morning at the State House.
“It is never too late recognize the merits of the veterans,” Barbet said. “It’s a real honor to meet them. It’s like a link between what happened 70 years ago and today, a memory transmission from generation to generation.”
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The veterans were hand-picked by the French President of the Republic, Francois Hollande. The National Order of the Legion of Honor, Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, is the highest honor in France.
First Lt. Byron E. Burns of Laurens was among the veterans honored Friday.
“I was surprised, I was really surprised,” Burns said. “I’m very pleased that they went out of their way to honor – not just me – it was my entire unit and others that went in to Southern France.”
Burns led Company E of the 442nd Infantry Regiment onto the beaches of Normandy. The unit was comprised almost entirely of Japanese-Americans fighting for a country that had placed many of their families in internment camps back home.
“I tell ya, I felt sorry for ’em. The United States government didn’t do ’em right,” Burns said. “They wanted to be called Japanese-Americans so badly that you couldn’t insult them. They were determined that they wanted to prove that they were real Americans.”
Burns says that eventually, due in no small part to his sacrifices and those of his men, the U.S. government had a change of heart, providing compensation for the Japanese-American families subjected to internment.
“Finally, thank goodness, after about, I’d say five, six months in battle, the U.S. government said, ‘Uh-oh, we done messed up. These are good fighters and they are fighting for our cause.’”
Rallying behind the motto “Go for broke!” the 442nd became the most decorated unit in the Army. A 1951 film – “Go for Broke!” – was based on the unit and featured a handful of Burns’ men. Burns was represented by actor Van Johnson.
“Go for broke!” Burns said, pumping his fists. “It was their way of saying ‘All out, gung-ho.’ That was our key word.”
Also honored Friday was Pfc. Chris Carawan from Columbia, who served in the 424th Regiment of the 106th Infantry Division. Carawan, whose unit was outgunned and outmanned at the Battle of the Bulge, says he often thought he wouldn’t make it back home alive.
“When we made the first attack on Christmas Eve to help stop the bulge, we lost 10 men in my company in one attack,” he said.
For Carawan, the appreciation from the people of France continues to humble him.
“I think the thing that really stands with me a lot is the letters that I still get today from children in northern France and Belgium,” he said. “I had two letters this past week from children in high school who – where they got my name I don’t know – they wanted to know if I could write them back and wanted us to always know what we did for their country. … We gave them their freedom.”
Joining Burns and Crawan in the National Order of the Legion were 1st Lt. Carl H. Schutte from North Augusta (264th Regiment, 66th Infantry Division), 1st Lt.George A. Wheeler from Gaffney (1955 Quartermaster Truck), Sgt. Frederick C. Wehrum from Anderson (445th Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion, 8th Division), signalman third class Earl B. Manning from Batesburg (6th Naval Beach Battalion, 5th Engineer Special Brigade) and Pfc. Leon R. Blackmon from Bamberg (110th Regiment, 28th Infantry Division).
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., choked back tears as he thanked the veterans for their sacrifice during the ceremony.
“I talked to these guys about their buddies that didn’t come back … and war is an ugly thing … but the only thing uglier than war is for mad people and evil people to rule the world. So it was a bit overwhelming for me to be here,” Graham said.
Gov. Nikki Haley, who was unable to attend Friday’s ceremony, proclaimed June 6 as “D-Day Remembrance Day” in South Carolina.