Their Numbers Dwindling, N.C. World War II Vets Get Thanks From France

Nov 21, 2017
Originally published on November 22, 2017 12:05 pm

The number of North Carolina veterans who fought in World War II is declining. But last week, four of them got an official thanks from a country they helped liberate.

At a ceremony in Raleigh Friday, four of the dwindling number of North Carolina veterans who fought in World War II got an official thanks from a country they helped liberate.

The Consul General of France for the Southeast, Louis de Corail, traveled from Atlanta to bestow the Legion of Honor on John P. Irby, III of Raleigh, Salvatore Maiello of Fayetteville, Morton Jacobs of New Bern, and Robert C. Senter of Fuquay-Varina,.

It is France's highest distinction.

The event at the State Capitol was both formal and festive, with the men's friends and family, as well as North Carolina and French officials.

"Dear veterans, you embody a shared French American history," Corail told the men. "You illustrate by your courage the friendship and shared values that so profoundly bind our two nations."

France began awarding the honor to U.S. veterans in significant numbers in 2004. It started as a way to smooth things over after some Americans grew angry when France wouldn't support U.S. plans to invade Iraq.

The French rely on word of mouth, publicity from news stories, and veterans' groups to spread the word of the opportunity to apply for the honor.

Since 2004, they have awarded it to several thousand veterans around the country.

At first, the French held one or two ceremonies a year in North Carolina. But this was the third this year.

"We're doing it faster because we know that they're aging," said Marie-Claire Ribeill, France's honorary consul for North Carolina.

She began helping organize the ceremonies a decade ago. She said in an interview before the ceremony that this was the first time the French have held one in November.

In short, the French are increasing the number of ceremonies because soon they won't be able to have any. It's no secret that World War II veterans are vanishing ever more quickly. Only about one in 32 remain, and only a fraction of those fought in France, which is the main criterion for qualifying for the honor.

For the first North Carolina ceremony this year, back in February, not all those who were honored lived long enough to come.

"We were supposed to have four, and we only had three," Ribeill said.

As the number of U.S. World War II veterans trails off, so too will France's gentle, personalized approach to diplomacy through them.

Ribeill said it is indeed a form of statecraft, albeit a soft one.

"It really emphasizes the friendship between the two countries and it's showing, yes, we're grateful, and we not only recognize your leaders and the famous people, but also the more humble people that fought for us," she said. "But they did a better service, a greater service than any leader, because they were there on the ground."

John Irby, a 94-year-old retired civil engineer who lives in Raleigh, was one of those fighting on the ground and one of those who received a medal at the ceremony.

Irby said he probably wouldn't have even filled out the paperwork for the medal if his daughter hadn't pressed him. But he likes the idea that it isn't awarded just to those who did extraordinary things in combat.

"There were 16 million of us in the Second World War, and about a million and a half of those went into France, of which I was one," he said. "I don't want to be shown as any kind of a hero or anything like that."

The Army awarded Irby the Silver Star for valor. It was for leading his troops against a far larger German force.

Family members said that he doesn't tell them much about what happened that day, and Irby dismisses any notion that what he did in the war was special.

"It was a team effort, whether you're a cook, or driving a truck or whatever," he said. "Some of us got given assignments that were more exposed, or weren't any more important but were more visible than others."

Irby thinks the French government was more inclined to approve the Legion of Honor for him because of something that didn't even happen in France, but in Germany.

His reconnaissance unit was near Frankfurt, pushing ahead of the main U.S. force to probe for German defenders when it was ordered to divert a few miles investigate a reported Prisoner of War camp.

The German guards fled when they heard Americans were coming. Without any fight, Irby's soldiers rolled up to a camp of Allied prisoners, including hundreds of Frenchmen.

"They were all completely disoriented, looked like they were in a daze, looked like they were about to freeze, starving," he said. "And a couple of them raise their shirts I remember, and you saw all these white lice on their bodies by the hundreds."

Irby says he was probably at the camp no more than an hour and a half. His entire role in liberating it had been simply to investigate, then call in a special unit trained to handle liberated POWs.

"I just happened to be the first vehicle pulling into that camp," he said. "And without any opposition. I don't even remember it as being a particularly dangerous day."

In short, Irby said, he was just doing his job.

But Ribeill, the French honorary consul, says Irby was a hero. And so were those American cooks and truck drivers who moved with him, fighting their way through France and helping free her country.

"Just thinking you could lose your life every minute for a country that's not even yours," she said. "Fighting for country that's not even yours, and you're way from your family, that's heroism."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.