Five weeks after D-Day in 1944, Richard Jolley, a Gaffney native now living in Aiken, crossed the beaches of Normandy and fought his way across France and Germany.
He was a 19-year-old private, a volunteer wounded twice by artillery fire. He still bears the scars today.
On Monday, the French ambassador to the United States awarded Jolley and six other South Carolinians — including former U.S. senator and S.C. governor Ernest “Fritz” Hollings — the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration, in a ceremony in Charleston’s historic Dock Street Theater.
“I started to cry a little bit when he said what I did,” said Jolley, 88. “He made it sound impressive.”
The Legion of Honor, established two centuries ago by Napoleon Bonaparte, is awarded to any American who fought in France to liberate that country from Nazi occupation. Thousands have been awarded to U.S. soldiers and sailors, most in the past decade as the Greatest Generation reaches their late 80s and 90s.
The ceremonies are an opportunity to not only honor the veterans of World War II but to cement the historic ties between the two countries — ties that stretch back to France’s alliance with the fledgling United States of America during the Revolutionary War.
Ambassador Francois Delattre, who flew in from Washington for the ceremony, said the Legion is offered to even the most common soldier, because all are held in the greatest regard by the French people.
“Each and every one of them is special,” he said following the ceremony. “Each one provided a unique and vital contribution to our liberation. This is one of the most moving and important parts of my duty.”
Hollings, a captain in the Army in the war, received no more or no less attention than any of the other six veterans. He joked that growing up, he didn’t realize that the French had contributed so much to the founding of our country; but, as a U.S. senator, he was able to present one of the Marquis de LaFayette’s Revolutionary War flags to Jacques Chirac, then president of France.
“I knew that the French gave us the Statue of Liberty,” Hollings said. “But I learned they also gave us our liberty.”
Also receiving the Legion of Honor on Monday were:
• Alexander Molnar of Sun City, a captain in the Army Air Corps who completed 35 mission in the 449th Bombardment Group and received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
• Ernest Haar of West Columbia, a first lieutenant who flew 31 missions with the 492nd Bombardment group and received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
• Stanley Wapinski of Columbia, a first lieutenant who served in the 26th Infantry Division, and received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
• Joseph Jones of Columbia, a ground radio operator for fighter aircraft homing stations with the 9th Air Force, 405th Fighter Group.
• Leon Jones of Columbia, a private first class who served with the 66th Engineer Combat Battalion.
“You are true heroes,” Delattre said. “You will be our heroes forever. We the French, we will never forget what you did to restore our freedom. And today, we also remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many of your comrades who rest on French soil. They will remain forever in our hearts.”
The ceremony was as special for the families of the veterans as for the old soldiers. Sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren jammed the theater’s reception room to snap pictures and shoot video on smartphones and tablets.
“We’re so blessed to have him still with us,” Lisa Foiles of Hilton Head Island said of her father, Joseph Jones. “We’re so proud of him and what he did.”
While the Legion of Honor is open to all Americans who fought in France, verifying the service and applying for the award can be a long process.
Vietnam vet Ernest Kirby of Columbia handled the paperwork for the four Columbia-area vets — a process that took more than a year.
“When these guys were going over the beach at Normandy I was in the second grade,” he said. “It was my privilege.”