At 19, he had mastered the skills of driving a car, conquered the suburbs of Boston where he was raised with six siblings, and now it was time to conquer the world.
William Fitzgerald didn't wait for the draft. He joined the Army, became a medic and volunteered for overseas duty. That was 1944.
The world was no oyster. June 6, 1944, was D-Day.
In early August, the 120-pound, bespectacled Fitzgerald was unprepared for what he would see next.
Fitzgerald was assigned to the 30th Infantry Division, Company E, 117th Regiment. As a replacement, he was sent to help liberate France.
Soon Fitzgerald found himself in Normandy. In Mortain, he would join his division, already four days into heavy battle. On the journey, Fitzgerald was jolted into the reality of his new world.
"I didn't know a soul on the truck. I was alone," he recalls. "A minute or two before reaching our destination, enemy fire hit right in front of the truck."
Unharmed, but forever impacted, Fitzgerald quickly learned the price of freedom.
"You hear artillery guns go 'boom-boom-boom.' A little closer, you hear a 'rat-a-tat-tat.' There's a fear,'' he said. "If you're not scared, you're crazy."
Sixty-seven years after Fitzgerald left Normandy, he was honored by the French government.
"Dear Mr. Fitzgerald," said the letter from the French ambassador, "I am pleased to inform you that by decree of President Sarkozy on September 16, 2011, you have been appointed a 'Chevalier' of the Legion of Honor." … The French people will never forget your courage and your devotion to the great cause of freedom."
• • •
Mortain is southwest of the coastal city of Le Havre and west of Paris. Fitzgerald was on the front line.
"It was 24/7. Artillery fire was coming from three directions," he said. "The front line kept going back and forth as we made gains and then lost them."
He worked without ceasing to aid fallen soldiers.
"You have to do what you have to do. When they call out, 'Medic!' you have to go do whatever you can for them." Fitzgerald still speaks of it with difficulty. "We lost more than 1,800 — wounded, killed or missing in action — in a six-day battle."
After Mortain, Fitzgerald's division advanced toward Belgium and Holland, then on to the Siegfried Line and into Aachen, Germany. His division and Company E received the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest unit award given by the United States. Company E, the 117th Infantry Regiment was honored for creating a diversionary attack. Fitzgerald says they lost a lot of men, but succeeded in five attacks, diverting considerable enemy fire from the main efforts.
Finally, Fitzgerald's battles were finished. It was time to return home.
"I got out in 1945,'' he said. "My nerves were shot. It took four or five years to get over it."
After the bitters of war, though, came the sweet. In 1953, at a church function, Fitzgerald met the love of his life — his wife of 57 years, Anne. The couple had four children. In the 1980s, he retired from Gillette and they moved to Pinellas Park.
Fitzgerald has been recognized with numerous medals, including the Bronze Star, Belgium Fourragere, Combat Medic badge.
In May, he read an article that the French government was honoring U.S. veterans who fought on French soil with the French Legion of Honor, the country's highest award, established in 1802 by Napoleon.
Anne-Laure Chavy of the French Consulate in Miami said the French government started the program in 2004 with hopes that as many veterans as possible can be honored before the die.
Fitzgerald contacted the consulate, submitted his application and awaited approval.
A crowd of 50 or 60 attended the ceremony in Homestead, as Fitzgerald and nine others who fought to help free France so long ago received the award from the consul general of France, Gael de Maisonneuve, as Rear Adm. Patrick Martin, chief of the French Detachment at U.S. Central Command, looked on.
So, at 88, Fitzgerald received the honor he had earned decades ago.
"The ceremony was done sincerely," said Fitzgerald. "They read some of the medals that each man had earned. The French officer pinned the medal on me and said, 'In the name of the president of the French Republic and in the virtue of the power bestowed upon me, I present you with the medal of the Legion of Honor.' "
"It was wonderful. I cried for most of it," Anne Fitzgerald said. "Just to think something would happen so good for him. I'm so proud of him."
Fitzgerald had other thoughts.
" 'So late, so many more brave than I was.' When I was getting the medal, that's what my thoughts were."