75 years after D-Day invasion, local WWII veterans earn French Legion of Honor
Richard Nelms was 21 when he arrived for the Battle of Normandy in a B-17 Bomber. Daniel McAllaster maintained the P-38 reconnaissance aircraft that mapped the French coast, months before the invasion. Stanley Zemont was an Army demolition squad leader, earning a purple heart during the Battle of the Bulge.
The men are part of the dwindling number of World War II veterans, and some of the newest members of the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest award.
“The French people will never forget that you helped restore their freedom with your bravery and your determination,” said Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, France’s consul general in San Francisco.
Lebrun-Damiens, born in Normandy, traveled to Seattle’s Museum of Flight earlier this month to award the men their medals.
“We know exactly what we owe to you personally. You will forever be in our hearts,” Lebrun Damiens said.
Nelms, 96, earned his Army Air Forces wings in December 1943. Over the course of his service, he flew 35 missions in France, Germany, and other Nazi occupied territories.
“When I returned from my tour, I was happy to be home alive and proud of the destruction we had done to Hitler’s war machine,” Nelms said. “That was enough, that was our reward.”
Nelms would receive much more recognition in the years that followed his service, including medals for his superb airmanship and bombing accuracy, along with a WWII Victory Medal.
Around 400 foreigners receive the French Legion of Honor each year. The tradition dates back to the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, when France announced it would award all veterans who fought for the liberation of the country.
McAllaster, 96, earned his medal for taking part in “the most extensive low altitude photographic assignment ever undertaken over enemy territory.”
The airplane mechanic was a member of the unit flying well before D-day, mapping out Normandy and the rest of the French coast.
“Glad to do it,” said McAllaster. “I’m glad I’m here to tell about it because a lot of us didn’t get to come home then.”
Zemont, 94, made it home after serving ten years in the Army. He was 18 and a new high school graduate when he joined the infantry in 1943. He would become a sergeant in the 3rd Batallion, 310th Infantry Regiment. Zemont nearly died when he first entered Germany, and was ambushed by rifleman, holed up in a concrete bunker.
“When we got there the Germans were waiting for us, and all hell broke loose,” Zemont recalled. “My Lieutenant was with me in a field in front of the pill box, and the flares kept us pinned down.”
He managed to get back to safety, while hauling a wounded sergeant who had been shot in the shoulder and heel.
Seventy-five years later, Zemont, McAllaster, and Nelms add to their legacy. The French medals make each man a chevalier, a knight in the country’s Legion of Honor.