RALEIGH – More than 70 years ago, young men and women risked their lives for the sake of America’s allies in Europe.
On Friday, one of the nations whose independence was saved said “Thank you” while honoring North Carolina veterans.
The top French official in the southeastern U.S., Consul General Louis de Corail, presented four World War II veterans — hailing from Fayetteville, New Bern, Fuquay-Varina and Raleigh — with the Legion of Honor during a ceremony at the old State Capitol.
The honor is France’s highest military honor, created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.
De Corail said the men were true heroes who would never be forgotten.
“It is never too late to pay homage to these veterans,” he said. “It is never too late to recall the legacy of their courage and their fight for freedom in a time of darkness and despicable ideology.”
The honored veterans were Salvatore Maiello, Morton Jacobs, Robert C. Senter and John P. Irby III.
De Corail pinned medals to each of their lapels, inducting them as knights in the Legion of Honor. He said the nation of France continues to try to prove itself worthy of the legacy of the veterans and others like them.
Maiello, of Fayetteville, enlisted in the Army in 1942 and spent more than three years in Europe, fighting to drive back German forces from Africa, Italy and France.
He served with the 67th Anti-Aircraft Gun Battalion, which was assigned to a French army unit for most of the fighting, providing artillery fires and protecting the troops from German bombers. He reached the rank of technician fifth grade during World War II and retired as a command sergeant major in 1974.
Jacobs, of New Bern, joined the Army in January 1944 and was in Europe six months later with the 1st Special Service Force, a joint American-Canadian commando unit that was the precursor to today’s elite special operations units in both countries.
He reached the rank of private first class while fighting in Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. He also assisted in the liberation of southern France and Norway before the end of the war.
Senter, of Fuquay-Varina, reached the rank of private first class while serving with the 83rd Infantry Division. He arrived in France two days after D-Day and fought in hedgerow battles in Normandy before moving on to the Ardennes and then in to Germany.
Irby, of Raleigh, left the Army as a first lieutenant after serving with the 6th Armored Division in Europe. He fought in France and Germany and helped liberate French troops from a prisoner-of-war camp.
Larry Hall, North Carolina’s secretary of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said the honors were a sign of the great relationship France and America continue to enjoy. He praised the veterans for their service and sacrifice, saying they were “heroes walking among us.”
De Corail said the veterans were designated for the honor by French President Emmanuel Macron. He said the men embody shared French and American history, noting that history and the nations’ friendship are bound by blood.
From Yorktown in the American Revolution, to Normandy in World War II, de Corail said, the two nations’ troops have fought side by side to uphold the principals of each and the ideals of the free world.
The two nations are today each other’s closest allies in the fight against terrorism, he said, fighting together in Iraq, Syria and central Africa.
Jacobs said the honor was a pleasant surprise. He said he has many friends who either didn’t make it home from the war or who died before they could be recognized in a similar fashion.
“I accept on behalf of the other soldiers who didn’t quite make it,” he said.
Jacobs said he wanted to serve with the 1st Special Service Force because he knew it was unlike any other unit in the military at the time.
“I was impressed. This was a combat unit,” he said. “You couldn’t serve with a finer group of men.”
Jacobs said he and others of his generation fought because they had to. Because someone had to.
“It was a job that needed to be done and we did it,” he said.
Maiello, who later served in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic before retiring as the senior noncommissioned officer for the 35th Signal Brigade, held his wife Irene’s hand after the ceremony. Maiello met Irene after helping liberate her home in Belfort, France.
In World War II, he served as a lineman, tasked with ensuring that batteries, commanders and his unit’s fire direction center could communicate. It was dangerous work, with German forces targeting the communications lines and lineman often needed to work near the front lines in support of forward observers.
As his wife inspected the medal on his lapel, Maiello said it was a great honor to be recognized by France. But he also admitted to being a little overwhelmed.
“I can’t believe all the people who came,” he said.
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3567.