WASHOUGAL — Fern Shaw’s arrival in France more than 70 years ago was grim business. Those waiting for him on June 9, 1944, included soldiers who never made it past the beach on D-Day.
Three days after the Omaha Beach landings, “bodies were still stacked up,” the 90-year-old Washougal veteran recalled.
France arranged a much more festive affair Thursday. In a presentation at Columbia Ridge Senior Living, the French representative in Seattle recognized Shaw as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his service during World War II.
As Jack Cowan, honorary French consul for Washington, told Shaw before the medal presentation: “You helped liberate France.”
At ‘Bulge,’ Remagen
Normandy was just the start of Shaw’s path through Europe. As a soldier in the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, Shaw took part in the Battle of the Bulge and rolled through Germany by way of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen.
Fern — he was named Fernald after a grandfather — actually got into the war ahead of schedule.
“In 1943, I was a junior in high school in South Paris, Maine,” he said last week. “I decided to see if I could get into the service. I had to give up my senior year.”
Shaw wound up in a field artillery outfit, driving a supply truck. Different elements of the 2nd Division were assigned different landing slots at Normandy, and after catching up with their guns, Shaw said, “we started going through hedgerow country.”
They advanced through Europe until the Germans’ surprise counter-offensive in Belgium.
“That’s where the Battle of the Bulge started,” Shaw said. “My division was on Elsenborn Ridge when the Germans broke through.”
One of the 2nd Infantry Division’s artillery batteries was able to block a thrust by a half-dozen German tanks.
“The battery took out the first tank and the last tank. The others couldn’t move, and we finished them off,” Shaw said.
As a truck driver during the Battle of the Bulge, “the only time I was in the front lines was when I hauled infantrymen to the front,” he said.
During the truckers’ stay at the front, “they took care of us. They knew we were bringing help,” he said.
“While hauling supplies, we’d see boots sticking up through the snow. We didn’t know whether (the bodies) were Germans or Americans.”
Another milestone was the crossing of the Rhine River, the last natural barrier between German defenders and the Allied offensive. German rear-guard forces tried to destroy the Ludendorff Bridge, but U.S. Army engineers kept it standing for several days. After it finally fell, “we waited for the engineers to build pontoon crossings.”
Once U.S. troops were that deep into Germany, “the Germans were about done,” he said.
The 2nd Division and the Russian army converged at Pilsen, in what was then Czechoslovakia.
“For us, that’s where the war ended,” Shaw said.
Zither traveling music
But Shaw’s work wasn’t done. After the war, Shaw and other truckers hauled displaced Frenchmen and Belgians, including forced laborers, back home.
“I made two trips across Germany, taking them back where they belonged. It was a five- or six-day trip.”
And in a truck that could carry 20 or so GIs, it was standing-room only — not that anyone complained.
“They were happy. One guy could play the zither. He played ‘Lili Marlene.’ “
Shaw looked off into the distance, remembering the tune popular with soldiers on both sides: “It was beautiful.”
Cheri Shaw, his daughter-in-law, helped the WWII veteran apply for the Legion of Honor award. He gets a newsletter from his veterans association that had a notice about France’s Legion of Honor program, she said.
“We rounded up all the papers, and we didn’t hear anything. And then, he called,” Cheri Shaw said, nodding toward Cowan.
The Legion of Honor award was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
“It’s the highest medal France gives,” Cowan said; it is divided into five categories, from Chevalier (Knight), up to Grand Cross.
Earlier in his career, the Seattle-based honorary consul awarded several Legion of Honor medals to World War I veterans. Now, “we’re reaching out” to those who served in France during WWII — including airmen who flew in French skies.
The award is not given posthumously; it is only awarded to living veterans, Cowan said.
After receiving his Legion of Honor, Shaw spoke on behalf of all those who will never have a chance for a similar award — including those he saw on Omaha Beach.
“It’s not just for me,” Shaw said. “This represents all the boys who didn’t come home, and those who came home and have died since.”