By Shay McNeal

When this column was first conceived, it was to demonstrate how we as a country, with often fractured relationships on both sides of our political aisle, could find common ground and work together to achieve positive outcomes. However, as it has evolved, it has taken on not only a United States’ perspective but an international perspective pertaining to how countries could possibly meet in the middle regarding global problems.

In this issue I was set to write about Mr. Edward Snowden and how ironic it is that a self-ordained “transparency and freedom of speech advocate” has traveled to some of the least tolerant countries in the world when it comes to the appreciation of the values of transparency and free speech they allow their citizens. Based on his vision of the world, he made a decision that one man, apparently above all men, could expose any and everything he desired by making known to the world how he feels about his country and its covert measures to protect its citizens. 

Worse, he sees a Machiavellian government that is monitoring our conversations (not really). Just think, how uneasy you are knowing that — when your spouse calls you about little league practice and then makes a series of calls about the grocery store and car repair and heaven knows what else — someone was eavesdropping. Not really it’s an algorithm silly! If they want you, a court gets involved. Oh my, what egos. I guess we think we are all that important.

As I was pounding away at the keyboard in great frustration, the phone rang and Vic Brandt asked if I wanted to cover the awarding of The French Legion of Honor to seven of South Carolina’s finest for their activities in the Second World War. You bet I did. As a child of a highly decorated World War II veteran of the Japanese Theater, I eagerly accepted and I am so glad I did. I spent an afternoon at the Dock Street Theater with the recipients hearing their stories as told by the French Ambassador.

Ambassador Delattre was so gracious and sincere with his praise of these men as well as his praise of our country’s’ assistance to France in fighting Al Qaeda in North Africa; it was music to the ears of all in attendance and another example of meeting in the middle for mutual benefit of two countries — U.S. and France — that we seldom hear about.

It was also special for Charleston since Charlestonians well remember that, as the ambassador mentioned, “Today’s ceremony takes on an even greater significance when you consider here in Charleston that Lafayette first landed in the new world on June 18, 1777 on the ship La Victoire to provide French support for the fight for American Independence. He stayed here for a few days before meeting with Congress in Philadelphia."

Moreover, he continued, “France remembers the American soldiers who helped it recover its liberty, its pride and its honor; today we also remember that the longstanding French-American friendship is bound in blood and that from Yorktown and Lafayette to the battlefields of World War I and the beaches of Normandy, our two countries have always stood shoulder to shoulder to defend and promote the values of freedom and democracy. We remember that our two nations owe each other their very existence as free nations.”
The recognition each man was about to receive highlighted their fighting on French soil to liberate France. The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonarparte to reward extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding services rendered to France, and recipients are chosen based on a decision taken by the President of the French Republic.

With the words, “The French will never forget what you did to restore our freedom,” the ambassador called the first recipient: Captain, Governor and Senator Ernest Hollings, arrived in Corsica in 1944 and participated in Allied landings in Provence as part of Operation Dragoon, then headed north to Lyon to the new American Air Field where he took part in several battles that ensured planes would continue to be loaded with critically needed supplies and head for the front. Capt. Alexander Molnar, a member of the U.S. Air Force, 719th squadron of the 449th bombardment Group of the 15th Air Force. Captain Molnar flew an amazing 33 missions — 11 over France resulting in the destruction of enemy defenses.

First Lieutenant Ernest Haar, stationed in Norfolk, England, flew from there to bomb targets in Germany completing 31 missions of which 14 were carried out on French soil. After being transferred to help train B-24 pilots, his aircraft collided with another plane but fortunately he survived.

First Lieutenant Stanley Wapinski left the U.S. on August 20, 1944 as part of the 1st Battalion, 101st Infantry, 26th Division and landed on the beaches of Normandy in August 1944 serving with the Red Ball Express transporting fuel, food and water to combat units on the front lines. Serving in Nancy, Moyenvic, Metz, and the Ardennes in brutal winter condition and after being wounded, he continued to serve in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Returning to Metz, one of the last occupied strongholds he ended his time abroad and returned to the United States.

Sgt. Joseph Jones, serving as a radio ground operator for lighter aircraft homing stations, joined the 9th Air Force, 405th Fighter Group, 511 Fighter Squadron. Jones landed at Omaha Beach in the heart of the invasion among some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Amazingly surviving that horrific battle, he headed north to Belgium and eventually was able to return home to his family.

Private First class Leon Jones joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and was assigned to the Company of the 166th Engineer Combat Battalion. He shipped out to Scotland and on to England before landing at Normandy a couple of days after D Day, yet he took part in the battle of Normandy and survived. Assigned a mission to sweep mine fields and blow up bridges, he soldiered on to the Loire region. His efforts resulted in blowing up bridges that stopped enemy troops from successfully counterattacking. He fought in the Ardennes, Germany and Central Europe before returning to the United Sates.

Private First Class Richard Jolley arrived in England in June 1944 and by July was on his way to Saint-Lô, one of the most difficult battles in Normandy that resulted in the liberation of that city. He continued across the Seine in August 1944 and Meuse in September 1944 and then across defensive enemy lines into Belgium, Holland and finally Germany in November 1944. Here the battle took place with the elite SS units but they failed to stop Jolley and his comrades in arms. Jolley returned to the United States with two wounds he received in combat.

Each member of what some call our “greatest generation” received his medal with great dignity and was named Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur of the Republic of France, without Twitter or Facebook trumpets instantly making it known to the world. Wish you could have been there. These are our true celebrities.

Shay McNeal is assistant publisher and editor at large of the Charleston Mercury; she divides her time between Northern Virginia and Charleston.

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