ST. PETERSBURG — It was 59 degrees outside the French American School of Tampa Bay, blustery for Florida in November.
But for two World War II veterans about to receive the French Order of Légion d’Honneur, Thursday’s weather was downright balmy compared to their wartime experiences in France.
“It was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life,” said Seminole’s Joseph Corbin, 93, of his time with Gen. George Patton’s famed Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge during the terrible winter of 1944. “This is a warm, sunny day compared to that.”
His counterpart from Odessa, 94-year-old Francis Smith, agreed.
During the battle for the French town of Metz in November 1944, he said it was so cold that both his feet turned black from frostbite. He spent the rest of the war recovering.
“Now that was cold,” Smith said. “This is beautiful.”
Corbin and Smith were the latest Americans to receive France’s Legion of Honor. Created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Légion d’Honneur is the highest French award that can be given to civilians. French officials have been presenting the medals to veterans who fought in France during World War II as a way to honor the sacrifices they made to help help liberate that nation from the Nazi scourge.
One of the medals was presented by French Brig. Gen. Germain Barrau, his nation’s representative to the U.S. Central Command international coalition at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
“For France and in our hearts, the memory of your courage still springs gratefulness,” Barrau said in a speech to the gathered crowd. “It is our duty to pass along this memory — the remembrance of all American veterans who came to the rescue of France and of Europe. We will not forget.”
Neither will Smith or Corbin.
“I was a machine gunner,” said Smith with a big smile.
On June 6, 1944, he was in the second wave of troops to land on Utah Beach during the D-Day invastion of Normandy. His mission was to operate the four 50-caliber machine guns in an armored half-track vehicle.
Smith and his guns were a welcome sight to troops pinned down by enemy fire.
He recalled one time when troops had to duck for cover when they came under aerial attack from German fighters.
“I could hear the shrapnel hitting the half-track,” he said.
But Smith’s blazing machine guns drove the Germans off.
“The boys were very happy,” said Smith, who continued fighting until his feet froze while laying in the half-track. It offered little protection from the elements.
Corbin also remembers the horror of that frigid winter.
It was so cold in the Ardennes Forest, Corbin said, “that almost as many men froze to death as were killed by Germans.”
After helping end Germany’s last-ditch effort to defeat Allied forces in the Battle of the Bulge, Corbin would go on to become wounded in both legs. Yet he continued to fight. His unit even liberated a Nazi concentration camp, though they found few survivors.
Corbin said his time in World War II earned him this claim to fame:
“I was the last soldier to see Patton alive,” he said.
He was standing guard duty on the morning of Dec. 9, 1945, when Patton left Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters to go on a hunting trip.
He never made it. Patton’s vehicle was struck by another. He broke his neck, and the famed World War II general died 12 days later.
“I saluted him and he threw his arms around me and said, ‘Is there anything I can do for you, soldier?” Corbin said. “We chatted for a few minutes, then he got into his car. I was shocked to hear the news later that he died. He was a great guy.”
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman.