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Saturday Morning News

WWII Veteran Receives His Bronze Star, 50 Years Later

Aired March 31, 2001 - 8:19 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, we've heard many stories about the brave soldiers during World War II, soldiers like Francis Lamoureux. However, this member of the 82nd Airborne Pathfinder team brings a unique story of heroism to us, one with quite a heartwarming twist, and it's a story of honor that begins with author Pat O'Donnell in his book, "Beyond Valor," and takes us to a bronze star.

Both men join us now from Washington this morning. Hello, gentlemen.

PAT O'DONNELL, AUTHOR, "BEYOND VALOR": Hello, Kyra.

FRANCIS LAMOUREUX, WORLD WAR II VETERAN: Good morning, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Francis, let's begin with you. Take us back to June 5th into June 6, 1944. Set the scene for us.

LAMOUREUX: Well, the scene really begins on June 5th, when we were stationed at an airfield in England getting ready to make our jump into Normandy. And of course, the jump was called off by Eisenhower because the weather was so bad. So, that meant we had to overnight in the compound where we were surrounded by concertina wire and armed guards and we were told we'd get shot if we ever tried to get out.

So, we the next day, the night of the 5th of June, about 11:00 at night, we were all lined up outside the plane, and I think you have a picture of that, that photo. But we boarded the plane in England, and we flew across the Channel between the islands of Guernsey and Jersey, and we hit the coast of Normandy. This was about, probably, 1:00 in the morning.

Then we got the word to stand up and hook up. So here, 18 men in the plane with me. I was the fourth man to jump out of the plane, and as we progressed across the Cherbourg Peninsula, the next thing you know, we encountered all kinds of flak and small arms fire. They were shoot because we were flying at a low altitude, which was necessary to make a night drop into combat.

Next thing you know, as we were standing up and hooking up, we saw trace ammunition and we could feel the crescendo of bullets underneath. I felt like I was in a popcorn popper, and feet were -- my toes were curling in boots, and I said, oh, my God. I hope this stuff doesn't come up through the fuselage and just tear us all to pieces.

So, it was a relief when finally got the signal to jump, and we exited the plane. I was number four. Right in back of me was Lieutenant Williams, and then in back of him was Warren Jefferson, Sergeant (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and in front of me was Fayette O'Richardson. We had worked as a team in England for about three months, during the months of March, April and May in preparation for this Pathfinder mission.

PHILLIPS: Wow, so, here was this mission, Francis, OK, and then Pat, as a writer, you were on a crusade to save stories like this. You met Francis, heard his story, but then something very interesting happened, something caught you attention that Francis said, and then someone else read your book and something very special happened. Tell us about that.

O'DONNELL: Basically, Francis mentioned to us in passing that he never received his Bronze Star medal that all Pathfinders received for June 6th. So, basically, unknown to him and without him asking us, we requested -- well, General Shelton actually read the book and praised the book, and the men in it...

PHILLIPS: And he wrote a letter to your editor, correct?

O'DONNELL: He did. So, we sent a letter to General Shelton asking if we -- asking if anything could be done for Francis' medal, and within a couple of days, we received a Bronze Star medal. And today, at 2:00, Colonel Mendez, Francis' battalion commander from World War II will present it to him.

PHILLIPS: So, Francis, how does this make you feel? All these years later, you are finally going to get your bronze medal.

LAMOUREUX: Well, it's a special event for me because Colonel Mendez is going to be making the presentation, and I have the greatest admiration and respect for that man. From day one, when we first met down at Camp McCall training to go overseas, and when I first saw him in combat, I knew immediately this guy, he is a real soldier. He is something special.

So, we've had a very close relationship over the years, going to reunions, and I told Pat I would not accept that medal from anyone except Colonel Mendez. I want to look him in the eye, eyeball (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to him, and say thank you for giving me this medal.

PHILLIPS: I know...

LAMOUREUX: And I know I'm not the only one. There are so many other men who deserve medals more than I do who haven't received medals. So, what makes it special is the fact that Colonel Mendez is going to make that presentation to me. I really am honored by that.

PHILLIPS: Well, he's going to be honored to meet you, no doubt, and give it to you. And Pat, you tell about other stories like Francis' in your book. I mean, there's a special tone of brotherhood. O'DONNELL: Absolutely. I think -- I've interviewed over 700 veterans for this book, and it's entire war in Europe told by the men who fought it. But kind of beneath that, I found a hidden story, basically, what I call the hidden war. It's kind of the feelings and emotions many of these men have about battle that all GIs really share. It includes like brotherhood and sacrifice and the feelings they have toward those that didn't return, and we captured a lot of those feelings in the book, and Francis' story is just one of them.

PHILLIPS: And Francis, tell me about the officer on July 20th in Praetaux (ph). I know this is a pretty special story that you shared with Pat.

LAMOUREUX: Well, that story is really the story that's touched my heart more than anything because when we jumped into Normandy, Lieutenant Gene Williams, who was a graduate of the University of Mobile, Alabama, he was 21 years old. I was 24. He was just a young kid as far as I was concerned, but we loved the guy. He was a good officer, and he really trained us and got us ready for this mission.

Then on the -- after we jumped in, he was the first man to come to me and say Lamoureux, how are you? Are you OK? Have you got your radio, you're reco (ph) set ready to go? And the next thing you know, two days later, his wife gave birth to twins in Mobile, Alabama.

But on the 20th of June, he was killed at Praeteux, and I walked by as we were moving at the end of the day, and everyone was looking down at this body stretched out on the dirt road in Normandy, lying on his back, and when I turned around and it was Lieutenant Williams, it just stabbed me.

And the same thing happened, all the men in the regiment. Soon, it got -- word spread around, especially in the battalion, all of those who knew him, they were feeling so bad to think that he was killed and he never knew that his sons had been born, twin sons in Mobile, Alabama. As I saw him looking there, lying with his helmet on, it looked as he just resting, looking up at the heavens. And there was a smile on his face, and it was just so delicate. It was an angelic smile. I'll never forget it. Stamped in my mind like that. And, to this day, I say, I wonder if he knew that his wife had given birth to twins.

I waited for 50 years, and I got a letter from Athens, Greece from his son, Gene Williams, one of the twin boys, and he asked me will you please tell me all you know about my father. So, I did write him an eight-page letter and I finally met his brother, Jack, his twin brother Jack. So, that was quite an emotional story, and I never, never forgot Gene Williams and the day seeing him at Praeteux, stretched out in the road.

PHILLIPS: Well, Francis Lamoureux, we salute you, sir, and we also salute your fellow comrades and you can read about these type of stories in the book, "Beyond Valor," written by Pat O'Donnell. Pat, terrific book. Thank you both for being with us this morning.

LAMOUREUX: Thank you. PHILLIPS: We definitely will not forget those soldiers that didn't make it home, and that book is a testament. Thanks gentlemen.

LAMOUREUX: Thank you, Kyra.

O'DONNELL: Thank you.

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