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    France honors WWII Normandy veterans

    The French government recognizes 55 men who participated in the invasion on June 6, 1944.

    [Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
    A prayer begins a ceremony Friday honoring veterans of the Normandy invasion during World War II. Joining in the event at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines are Zephyrhills residents Arthur R. Damsgaard, left, 98th Infantry Division; Mel Cunningham, center, 104th Infantry Division; and Robert DeHaven, 1st Infantry Division.

    By JULIANNE WU

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001


    To apply for a certificate

    U.S. Veterans who participated in the Normandy Invasion during World War II may apply for a "Thank You America" certificate from the Republic of France. Send copies of your discharge papers or other official documents proving you were at Normandy to: French Consulate, One Biscayne Tower, Suite 1710, 2 South Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL 33131.

    SEMINOLE -- On June 6, 1944, Fred B. Crum landed on Utah Beach with the Allied troops, a part of the Normandy invasion. His job was to blow up the tritons, the three-sided barricades set up by German troops on the beach.

    At the same time, William David Meisgeier was serving as a powder man for the 5-inch guns on the USS Fitch, a destroyer that was the first ship to fire on the Germans along the coast of Normandy.

    Later that day -- known as D-Day -- James G. Couillard, whose ancestors had migrated from Normandy to Canada in the 17th century, was waiting to go ashore on Omaha Beach with the armored infantry unit.

    The three men were among 55 World War II veterans who participated Friday in a "Thank You America" ceremony conducted on behalf of the French government at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines.

    They also are among the nearly 16-million men, and women in non-combat roles, who served in World War II. Now, mostly in their 70s and 80s, they are dying at the rate of about 1,100 per day, according to the Veterans Administration.

    With families in attendance on Friday, the men -- all of whom saw combat at Normandy between June 6 and the end of July, 1944 -- were awarded certificates of appreciation from Philippe Chatignoux, the French consul general from Miami.

    "This is a very moving ceremony," Chatignoux said. "Even though I was not yet born at the time of the war, we have all enjoyed more than 50 years of peace in Europe, thanks in part to these men. People of my generation . . . and the younger generations should never forget what happened in the war for freedom and democracy."

    Crum, 78, traveled from Plant City to participate in the ceremony. "This is a traditional thing," he said. "The French government is more inclined in that direction, to honor veterans."

    Crum, who was injured in Normandy and later near the Belgian border in Germany has a Purple Heart and a Bronze Arrowhead among his military medals.

    "I was hit by shrapnel, but all they did was put a big patch on me," he said. "They figured anyone who was on the line should stay there."

    Meisgeier, 75, of St. Petersburg said he doesn't like to talk much about his experiences with the U.S. Navy during World War II. "The ships on both sides of us were destroyed during the (Normandy) invasion," he said. "We could have been hit, too."

    Couillard, 78, of Cocoa, said he was in Africa, Tunisia and Sicily before going to Normandy. He was in the Army for seven years.

    "My luck ran out at Normandy," he said. He was wounded in both legs from German artillery shells when the troops went inland, near St. Lo. "I think this is a wonderful ceremony today," said Couillard, who has two Purple Hearts. "I've always had a good feeling about France. And I went back to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994."

    Also honored Friday was Alfred Pugh, 106, a Bay Pines nursing home resident, who fought in France in World War I. In 1999, Pugh was one of hundreds of American veterans named chevaliers of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor France bestows. It was an extension of the 80th anniversary of the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

    French-born Sylvie Burney of Lutz also thanked the World War II veterans Friday. She recounted how her Jewish family was rescued by Americans and how her father sent her to a Catholic boarding school in a Paris suburb to escape the clutches of the Nazis.

    Although many of the people in the audience were older, there were some young people, too. Deborah Young, 17, of Seminole was there to support Meisgeier, her grandfather. Recently, Young did a paper on her grandfather for one of her senior classes at Keswick Christian School. "I think these veterans need to be honored because they're such wonderful heroes," she said.

    -- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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