PATCHOGUE, NY (Reuters) - Sixty-five years after he first saw the beaches of Normandy from behind a gun on the deck of a U.S. Navy landing craft on D-Day, John “Harry” Kellers will return to receive one of France’s highest honors.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will present Kellers with a medal making him a “Chevalier (Knight) of the Legion of Honor” at a ceremony on June 6 marking the anniversary of the 1944 Allied invasion that liberated France from Nazi Germany in World War Two.
Kellers is one of around 20 U.S. veterans who will fly to France this week for the ceremony to be attended by U.S. President Barack Obama.
He was an 18-year-old from rural Long Island, New York, when he saw combat for the first time aboard the landing craft LCT 539, which carried infantry and combat engineering equipment onto Omaha Beach in Normandy.
“I was so naive I had no idea what the big event was going to be,” Kellers said in a an interview at this home in Patchogue, Long Island. “The most terrifying to me was when a fellow got hit in the head and his head exploded.”
“There was nothing but this pink, reddish pink, and we had it all over our uniforms and what we were wearing, and at that time you really knew it was a serious business,” he said, recalling having to hose down the deck to wash away the blood.
France changed the terms of the Legion of Honor in 2004 to open it up to foreign World World Two veterans who served on French soil, opening the way for U.S. veterans like Kellers to be honored. The son of a fellow veteran recently told Kellers about the change and suggested he submit his service record.
He did so, and some time later received a call from a French official informing him of the honor. He said his reaction was to think “Why me?” and he felt that he was accepting the medal on behalf on all those who took part.
Kellers enlisted in the Navy in June 1943 at the age of 17, a decision he said was driven less by patriotism than because all his friends had enlisted.
“People were going and you just went,” he said. “I consider myself as a 12-year-old (would be) today, because I was so naive, living out here in the country.”
After the initial landing on D-Day, Kellers’ landing craft continued to ferry supplies ashore for months until it became almost routine, he said.
He remembers going ashore one time and finding a German ammunition dump. More gruesome were the piles of human remains, arms and legs of soldiers killed in the fierce fighting.
“I can still distinctly remember one foot and leg, the fellow had to be red haired, very coarse, and you could see the hair on that thing,” Kellers said.
“I still don’t understand why it didn’t have the effect it maybe should have had,” he said.
Kellers said he was excited to be returning to France after so many years, joking that he will have been there twice in his life — “Once paid for by the U.S. government, the U.S. Navy, and the other by the French government.”
“I’m so proud, and grateful that I survived, obviously, and grateful that I had that experience,” he said.
Returning may be an emotional experience, he added, recalling a ship mate who went to France for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.
“He said he found it very difficult on the beach because they took him to the actual landing site, he said it brought back flashbacks,” Kellers said. “It was dramatic for him and I hope that it’s not for me.”
Writing by Claudia Parsons, editing by Michelle Nichols and Vicki Allen