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Photo gallery: 8 WWII vets getting French Legion of Honor

Sep. 11, 2013 - 08:34PM   |  
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Veteran Ervin Aden, of New Orleans, salutes during the 'Star Spangled Banner' as eight World War II veterans who participated in the liberation of France are awarded the French Legion of Honor Award presented by the French Embassy. (Ted Jackson / The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune via)

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NEW ORLEANS — A soldier in the “Ghost Army” that misled and tricked the Germans and another who led months of fights behind enemy lines in Normandy are among eight World War II veterans from Louisiana who’ve been made knights of the Legion of Honor to honor their service in France.

“For your contributions to the liberation of France, you receive France’s highest honor,” Consul General Jean-Claude Brunet told the veterans and family members at a ceremony Wednesday at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Brunet presented the medals to Frank J. Peragine, Al F. Goudeau, and Ervin Aden, all of New Orleans; Albert L. Lasseigne of Houma; Joseph C. Latiolais of Breaux Bridge; Anderson B. Wilson of Slidell; John T. Remel of Gonzales; and the brothers of the late Joseph Reich of Covington.

The government of France decided several years ago that all American World War II veterans who fought in that country or contributed to its liberation are eligible for the medal, created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to reward extraordinary accomplishments and outstanding service to France.

Neither the French Embassy in Washington nor the American Society of the French Legion of Honor immediately returned calls asking how many veterans have been awarded the medal since then and this year. More than 100 veterans who served in France during World War II have been honored this year around the country.

The medal is generally not given posthumously, but Reich died after his was struck, museum spokeswoman Rachel Haney said.

After presenting the medals, Brunet offered champagne to toast Franco-American friendship while a brass quintet from the Navy Band New Orleans played an armed services medley.

Goudeau, 91, said he was an orderly, bodyguard and interpreter for a colonel in the 82nd Combat Engineers. “It was like being back in Louisiana, in Normandy,” he said.

Wilson and Aden both landed in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Aden was a lieutenant in the 4th Cavalry Group, which landed on Utah Beach. For the next 55 days, according to a biography from the museum, he “led his troop in fierce fighting across Normandy,” fighting continuously, often behind enemy lines. He was seriously wounded by a German tank during the battle to liberate Villedieu-les-Poeles.

Wilson landed at Omaha Beach with the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, which made full-size inflatable planes, tanks and heavy artillery as daylight decoys and broadcast recordings at night to simulate troop and tank movement. Wilson said he was assigned to headquarters, rather than being one of the “artists” making decoys or the sound crew in charge of nighttime broadcasts.

He was among 1,023 enlisted men in a unit with 82 officers.

“We would go in and replace a division of 8,000 to 12,000 men with those eleven-hundred,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “With all of the artistry and inflated tanks and artillery pieces and jeeps and airplanes we would just replace a division. And they would pull out and attack in another location.”

The fakes had to be near enough to the front lines for the enemy to see them, but far enough to fool them.

“We did work wherever we could pull off a foolery,” he said. “They taught us to lie so much that you don’t know whether I’m telling you the truth or not.”

He and other members were sworn to secrecy before the unit was disbanded in 1945. Information about the unit was declassified in 1996.

“I had two grown children before they ever knew what kind of outfit I was in,” he said.

Peragine, now a retired attorney, was a 19-year-old machine gunner when the 26th Infantry Division landed in France about three months after D-Day. It was the first division to sail directly from New York to Cherbourg Harbor, which the Allies had taken, he said.

He’d been in combat less than two months when an explosive 20mm shell hit his left ankle as Gen. George Patton’s Third Army fought from Nancy toward Metz and his unit “caught a terrific German barrage of mortars and machine guns.”

The shell tore out his Achilles tendon, about half of his heel “and a good part of my lower left leg,” hospitalizing him for 11 months, Peragine said.

Peragine said he spent about 30 hours in no-man’s land before Army medics in a Red Cross truck rescued him and other soldiers.

During that time, he said, one German tried to take him as a hostage. “He gave up when he saw that I couldn’t stand,” Peragine said.

He saw another German in the early morning. “I saw him and yelled to him for water. I was just terribly thirsty. He ran away.”

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