JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A dozen American soldiers received the highest honor from France consulates Thursday.
The 12 men received the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal for their service fighting alongside France for its independence from Nazi rule during World War II.
"This is the highest distinction that we have in France, the highest,” said Philippe Létrilliart, counsul general of France in Miami. “We give it only to exceptional people, so yes, gentlemen, we consider the young American soldiers that freed us up from Nazism as doing something exceptional."
One by one, the decorated soldiers stepped forward to receive their medal, pinned by Létrilliart, and French diplomats shared their gratitude to the soldiers.
"I don't think I would have been able to live the life I'm living today, and I'd like to thank you personally,” said François Kloc, honorary consul of France in Jacksonville.
Bill Eberle served in the Army artillery division in 1943. He remembers the tough battle against the Nazis as his regiment invaded France and later Italy.
"(The) 142nd Regiment had gotten trapped in the Bulge mountains, and the Japanese-Americans were sent in to rescue us,” Eberle said.
He said like many young men during WWII, he didn't think twice about joining the fight.
"We all wanted to serve our country. I remember when I was 18, I thought, 'My goodness, I might not be able to get into the Army.' Everybody wanted to get into the Army,” Eberle said.
"All of them came to us to free us from the Nazi barbarity, and many of them died," Létrilliart said.
John Johnson died before he could receive his medal, but his wife, Geraldine Johnson, accepted the medal on his behalf.
"I'm honored. I didn't expect this,” Geraldine Johnson said. “I'm glad they're honored because they deserve it, each and every one of them."
The French consulates said they recognize the sacrifice the American soldiers made for their country as a testimony of friendship and solidarity between the two allies.
"I really don't think we deserve all of this credit. I think most of us were just there at the right time and at the right place,” Eberle said. “Most of us did our job, and we were glad to serve."
And their legacy is one that will live on in the history books forever.