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WW II veterans receive France's highest honor at MacDill ceremony

TAMPA — The first two offerings from the French came in early 1945.

One was the gift of wine. Hugh Wyn Griffith said a French farmer walked over and presented it to the Americans as a U.S. truck convoy stopped for a break. The second was the gift of food. A stranger insisted on buying Wyn Griffith and his buddies dinner at a nice restaurant near Marseille.

On Thursday, the Seminole man accepted a third gift: France's highest decoration, the Legion of Honor.

Wyn Griffith and eight other U.S. World War II veterans were awarded the medal by a French consul general during a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base for their part in the battles that helped liberate the country from the Nazis.

The ceremony took place at MacDill's Coalition Village, where nations that have partnered with the United States in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have military personnel stationed.

Wyn Griffith, 87, a native of Great Britain, lived near London when he was sent to live instead with a relative in the United States in 1940 so he would be safe during the Battle of Britain. A few years later, Uncle Sam drafted him.

His father fought for Britain during World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French. His father passed that medal to him. "I'm happy I can now pass the Legion of Honor to my own son," said Wyn Griffith.

One by one, a French rear admiral in a smart white uniform pinned the medals on their chests and offered the thanks of a nation forever in their debt.

"It's high time that we give you this award," said Gael de Maisonneuve, France's Miami consul general.

The full name of the decoration is Knight in the National Order of the Legion of Honor. France has given the award to thousands of American veterans who served on French soil in the war in ceremonies each year around the United States.

The eight others honored Thursday were Edward Doyle, 88, of Seminole; Joseph Anderson, 89, of Bradenton; Cosmo DeFazio, 87, of Beverly Hills, north of Inverness; George DiFalco, 88, of Lakeland; Frank Gresser, 87, of Spring Hill; Earl Gullett, 87, of Lakeland; Arthur Meeks, 93, of Lakeland; and Donald Walters, 88, of Lady Lake, southeast of Ocala.

The medal was created by Napoleon in 1802 to honor "military and civil merits," according to the French.

Previous recipients (the medal is not awarded posthumously) include Audie Murphy, the most-decorated U.S. soldier in World War II, and former President Dwight Eisenhower.

Add Shorty Doyle to the list.

"Shorty," a Seminole resident honored Thursday, was Doyle's nickname during the war. He stood 5 feet tall.

The Army soldier found himself driving a Jeep on reconnaissance missions near the German front to scout artillery positions for advancing troops.

He remembered visiting an advance intelligence outpost in Belgium in December 1944 and hearing rumors that the Germans were building up their forces for an attack. Few believed it. The Germans were in retreat.

Still, Doyle said he felt some relief as he drove away from the action, back to safe quarters far from the Germans. Doyle said he just loved Bastogne.

What followed was the Battle of the Bulge. Doyle was ordered out before the famous German siege of the town. He said he barely made it.

He said being honored by the French was a thrill and he accepted the medal thinking of those soldiers who died in France.

Gullett, the Army veteran from Lakeland, told the French he accepted the medal thinking of his "foxhole buddy" during the war. The pair once captured 12 German soldiers by themselves.

His friend was killed in 1944.

Gullett gave the French a salute and toast: "Vive la France!"

WW II veterans receive France's highest honor at MacDill ceremony 07/12/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 13, 2012 12:18am]
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