‘Our heroes forever’

Stanley Wapinski, of Columbia, wears his World War II medals along with his new Legion of Merit award. The French ambassador to the United States François Delattre awarded the Legion of Merit medal at the Dock Street theater to seven World War II veterans to honor their service in liberating France during World War II Monday June 24, 2013. Grace Beahm/Staff

Grace Beahm

They flew on missions to bomb Hitler’s war machine and chased the deadly V-1 rockets that were threatening thousands.

They froze in the Ardennes Forest during the winter of 1944, and delivered the supplies that kept the Allied momentum alive.

And nearly seven decades after World War II came to a close, France said thank you with the highest recognition it has.

Seven elder sons of South Carolina, among them former U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, were given the French Legion of Honor Monday in an expression of France’s eternal gratitude to those who helped liberate their nation from the Nazis in 1944 and ‘45.

During the hourlong ceremony at Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre, France’s ambassador to the U.S., François Delattre, said the seven are “our heroes forever.”

Some of the men, now in their late 80s and early 90s, seemed to choke up with pride or fall weak in their voices as the red-ribboned medal originally created by Napoleon Bonaparte was pinned onto suit jackets.

“I have trouble standing,” said former Army Pfc. Leon Jones of Columbia, who during the war had the hazardous duty of clearing mine fields and blowing bridges.

“You don’t have to,” Delattre kindly answered as he bent down low to grab Jones’ outreached right arm.

Created in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor is the highest recognition of its kind in France. It covers eminent service to the French Republic, be it by military or civilian means. Recipients are designated by the French president, but the nominating process for these veterans began in the U.S.

One of the men, former B-24 pilot Earnest Haar of West Columbia, remembers the dangers of flying fuel drums to the front lines while trying to catch up with fast-moving Gen. George Patton. More than one plane was lost in the effort, he said, but the Army kept going.

There were more memorable times too, Haar said, like when he landed on a newly captured airfield and “traded cigarettes for champagne” with those on the ground.

Hollings, 91, of Isle of Palms, who retired from the Senate in 2004, took his award in good humor, recalling how the French came to Colonial America’s aid in large numbers, helping trap the British at Yorktown and securing victory in the Revolution.

“I always knew you all had given us the Statue of Liberty, but I did not know you gave us liberty,” said Hollings, who served in Africa before landing in southern France. He also was in charge of a radar and searchlight detachment that for a time helped defend a French airfield.

Hollings talked of being with French pilots who took off for action with great haste when there was a “rouge,” or red, alarm, he said.

Delattre, meanwhile, on several occasions made note of the strong ties between the U.S. and France, listing the American Revolution, both World Wars, the Atlantic partnership and, more recently, hunting al-Qaida in the North African nation of Mali. Still, it was World War II that was front and center.

“Gentlemen, we will never forget what you did for us,” he added.

Other members of the award list were Alexander B. Molnar of Bluffton (1st Lt., 719th Squadron, 449th Bomb Group); Stanley W. Wapinski of Columbia (1st Lt., 101st Infantry, 26th Division); Joseph B. Jones of Hilton Head Island (Sgt., 9th Air Force, 405th Fighter Group); and Richard W. Jolley of Aiken (Pfc., Company K, 119th Infantry, 50th Division).

The award bestowed Monday has been given to South Carolinians before. The nominating chain usually begins when living vets are asked to provide a biography and copies of discharge papers showing service tied to France.

Three of the men recognized Monday were nominated by Ernest Kirby of Columbia, past president of the S.C. Chapter of Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. Kirby was at Monday’s ceremony and said he recognized that the ranks of the World War II generation are disappearing quickly.

“Their time remaining on this earth is not long,” Kirby said. “It’s time to honor them. They’re heroes.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.