France honors WWII veteran
On a wall in the home of Virgil and Janetta Smith are reminders of his service during World War II.
A framed Certificate of Merit from the Battle of the Bulge hangs on the wall, as well as numerous medals Smith received.
Now, he has a new medal to add.
Smith recently received the Knight of the Legion of Honor Medal from the French government.
The award pays tribute to soldiers who did much for France and western Europe during World War II.
“Thanks to your courage, and to our American friends and allies, France has been living in peace for the past six decades. You saved us and we will never forget. For us, the French people, you are heroes. Gratitude and remembrance are forever in our souls,” Graham Paul, General Consul of France in Chicago, wrote in a Sept. 23 letter to Smith.
Paul further wrote, “To show our eternal gratitude, the government of the French Republic has decided to award you the Legion of Honor. Created by Napoleon, it is the highest honor that France can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for France.”
Smith’s service years
Born in Stockton, Ill, Smith joined the U.S. Army in 1942.
“I was with four other fellas – schoolmates. We all joined the Army together, because it was going to get us anyway,” he said.
Smith received his training at Camp Blanding in Florida.
“In 1943, we left on a boat, the John Ericsson, and went to England,” he said. “We were preparing to go to war.”
He was stationed at Beaconsfield, and Smith would have two roles during the war.
“First, I was in the artillery, and then I came to be a battalion agent,” he said.
Smith, who celebrated his 91st birthday on Sept. 19, said, “We drilled, drilled and drilled and one day, I was on a bazooka in a hole.”
He heard someone clear his throat and looked up.
“It was (General Dwight D.) Eisenhower. He said, ‘Do you know how to use that thing?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘One day, you’ll have to use it.’ He was one super man,” Smith said.
On June 6, 1944, Allied troops landed on the French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy.
“When we could get on, then we landed on Omaha (Beach),” Smith said of his division. “That is when all hell broke loose. It was terrible.”
He was in France until the war ended and received five Battle Stars and one Silver Battle Star.
“If there was a place we had to go, we went,” Smith said. “Saint Lo was a bad one. Normandy was a bad one. Montaine was a bad one, and the Battle of the Bulge was a real bad one.”
During the war, “we would be up front. Then, another division would come and cut us off so we got a rest,” he said.
Some of his memories of the war are more difficult to talk about such as a large train the troops stopped.
The train was headed to a concentration camp.
“They were packed in there. I offered some rations to a man. He couldn’t eat it. He was so close to dead. It was terrible,” Smith said.
After the war
When the war ended, Smith returned home on the Queen Mary. He was discharged in 1945.
For a time, he worked with his father at the VA in Downey, Ill.
Smith’s professional career also included being a police officer for 15 years.
Retired since 1986, he and Janetta moved from Illinois to Wisconsin that same year. About 2 1/2 years ago, the couple moved to Waupaca.
On Sept. 4, they celebrated 67 years of marriage.
They have three children – Karen Hendrikson, who lives with her husband, Roland, in Wittenberg; Colette Hubner, of Waupaca; and Kevin, who lives in Dubuque, Iowa, with his wife, Lisa.
They have eight grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
It was a couple years ago that Smith learned the Knight of the Legion of Honor Medal was available to those who had served in the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.
He and Janetta found out through the division’s newsletter.
Smith had to apply for the honor, and it took several applications before he received the medal.
The first time, his application was lost. The second time, the application was returned to the Smiths, because it had been sent to the wrong address.
Eight months after filling out the application for a third time, he received the honor.
“I sure like that medal,” Smith said.
During the war, Smith was a sharp shooter with carbine and a military marksmen with an MI rifle.
He received a medal for his shooting and also a Good Conduct Medal, the Theater of Operations Medal and the Eisenhower Medal.
In addition, Smith has memories of visiting the World War II Memorial and other sites in Washington, D.C. – first with family and then on April 5, 2012, when he was on the Old Glory Honor Flight which went there.
He has a scrapbook filled with photos from the trip on which his grandson, Derek Hubner, accompanied him.
The Smiths have photo albums from their earlier trip there.
Of the honor he received from the French government, Smith said, “If there are any other soldiers out there from the 30th Infantry Division who don’t have the medal, contact me. I’ll give them the address.”
Smith said they liberated many Jews in France. He feels he had an angel sitting on his shoulder during his time in the war.
He may be reached at 715-258-7155.
“It just made me feel that I got to know my accomplishment,” Smith said. “A lot of them didn’t get to realize how we had helped somebody.”