Editor's note: In commemoration of today, June 6, being the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France - known as D-Day, we are posting an article that ran in the Alabamian approximately five years ago. The article is about Double Springs resident Jack Baldwin, who received the French Legion of Honour for his role in helping to liberate France from the Nazis. The article includes Baldwin's personal recollections of landing at Normandy on D-Day. Please note that the dates within this article reflect the timeframe when it was written five years ago.
DOUBLE SPRINGS - A Double Springs man has joined a short and very prestigious list of persons to receive France’s highest honor.
Jack Baldwin was awarded the French Legion of Honor in a touching ceremony Sept. 27, at the French Consulate in Atlanta. Denis Barbet, Consul General of France, presented the exquisite medal to Baldwin, as well as 11 other World War II veterans from all across Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee during the ceremony, essentially naming them chevaliers, or knights of France. Each man was recognized for his role in helping to liberate France from the Nazis during World War II.
“The people who were there got to see 12 men who came through the Great Depression, fought the War, then made it home and worked 40 and more years to help rebuild the world,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin was only 21 years old when he entered the U.S. Army, joining the already famed Second Infantry Division, 38th Regiment. He began his training in Wisconsin in late 1942, then continued training in Ireland and Wales for months, all leading up to the momentous day of June 6, 1944: D-Day. Baldwin soon learned what all the months of training had been for.
“We went in on D-Day, D-night was what it was, actually. They called it D-1. It was terrible,” Baldwin recalled, saying that he was 5’7”, weighed approximately 155 pounds, and had over 90 pounds of equipment on him as he waded ashore. His buddy, James Lofton, was carrying their rifle and tripod along with his own supplies and Baldwin had two boxes of .30 caliber ammunition.
“We knew the picnic was over. This was the real thing. The first gun section in our company, boys I had gone through all of this with, they (the Germans) blew them away. They didn’t leave anything,” Baldwin said, becoming emotional as he remembered. “It took a lot for you and I to be sitting here talking about this. What a high price was paid.”
Baldwin and his regiment began making their way through France, facing fierce combat along the way. They took Hill 192, then Saint-Lo. They battled through the Hedgerows, then entered an intense battle for Brest, France.
“Hitler told them that in 90 days, they (the Germans) would be out of there and everything would be fine, just to hold out. They pulled the second division away from the front line, by ourselves, and in 39 days, we took the town, more than 20,000 prisoners, the U-boats, the submarines, we took it in 39 days,” Baldwin recalled.
Baldwin went on to participate in more intense battles on the march to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, including the Battle of the Bulge, where so many lost their lives. In fact, he was involved in five of the six major battles in the European theater of the war. He recalled the Battle of the Bulge during brief remarks he made in Atlanta after receiving the French Legion of Honor.
“So many got killed or froze to death. They were wounded, and you couldn’t get to them,” Baldwin recalled.
Baldwin made a presentation of his own while in Atlanta, presenting Consul General Barbet with a commemorative Statue of Liberty coin.
“I told him every country has beautiful women, but the most beautiful woman I ever saw in my life was standing in New York Harbor with her torch burning brightly, welcoming us when we came home from the war. That was the prettiest sight I had ever seen,” Baldwin said, recalling that they had been sailing for days, no land in sight, when his captain told them early one beautiful morning that they were really going to see something that day, and soon Lady Liberty came into view.
Barbet was very touched by the gift, thanking Baldwin and sending him a letter some weeks later, telling him that he intends to keep the coin always.
Baldwin was thrilled to have many local residents make the trip to Atlanta to see him receive this great honor, including his son, Larry Baldwin, Randall and Joan Norris, Rev. Marion Berry, Eddy Shipman and Arnold Ward. He noted that Randall and Eddy handled driving duties. Baldwin was also thrilled to see his Army buddy James Lofton’s grandson, Tommy Lofton, in attendance. Tommy - who works as a historian for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, traveling around the world recording histories of World War II Veterans - flew in to be a part of the special event, and Baldwin said it was wonderful to once again spend time with this young man who has come to mean so much to him.
“Tommy has gone out of his way dozens of times to come to see me,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin will be adding his French Legion of Honor Medal to a remarkably distinguished group of medals he has received for his service to the nation, including his five Bronze Stars, Silver Star, Purple Heart and Presidential Citation, just to name a few.
The French Legion of Honor was created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte and is generally, but not exclusively, given for military service. It is the highest decoration bestowed by France, and has only been awarded to 10,000 Americans in the medal’s history of existence. Other noteworthy recipients of the French Legion of Honor include Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. George Patton, Audie Murphy and Sgt. Alvin York.
France is making an effort - as the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaches - to award their highest honor to those who helped save their country from the Nazis, as a show of the French people’s deep appreciation and determination to never forget what happened. The French Legion of Honor Committee in Paris has been scouring through materials to determine worthiness for this great honor. The vetting process is lengthy. The French Legion of Honor cannot be awarded posthumously, and with only approximately 1.7 million of 16 million World War II veterans in America still living, yet dying at a rate of approximately 740 each day, the need to recognize their service is becoming more urgent. There are only three members of Baldwin’s platoon still living.
Baldwin is modestly proud about his service to his nation, always remembering those who served and fought alongside him. Most of all, he is proud to be an American. He recalls witnessing the reactions from German POWs after the Allies took Brest, France.
“They had been fighting for five or six years. They said that they had not fought anybody like the Americans. I don’t know why, but we just don’t run,” Baldwin said.