LONGVIEW — Les Stiebritz served in every major World War II battle on the European front — from Utah Beach on D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge.
The Longview man served under Gen. George Patton as the famous military leader moved through Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia and France.
And Stiebritz still remembers the piles of stolen shoes as tall as buildings and the ghostly people he helped liberate at the Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria.
More than 70 years later, Stiebritz received the French Legion of Honor for his service to France during World War II — the highest honor a non-French citizen can receive.
These days Stiebritz is a man of few words, but as he gently cradled the green metal wreath with white spires and a crisp red ribbon, he whispered, “Wow.”
His daughter, Cindi McCoy, had a more animated response.
“I’m ecstatic about,” McCoy said. “I’m just tickled.”
Stiebritz now joins the ranks of local honorees with Kelso native Richard Grewelle, who received the Legion of Honor in 2010.
Sitting in his cozy room at Somerset Retirement Home with his daughter at his side, Stiebritz is an unassuming figure. But walls full of photos, medals and patches tell another story.
Stiebritz was born in 1913 in Elk near Spokane. He grew up on a family farm, traveling in a horse-drawn buckboard.
When his family moved to Longview, the city was only five years old. Stiebritz, then 15, rode by himself in a railroad car with the cow, the dog and the chickens. The trip took a full week.
Stiebritz was working for Weyerhaeuser Co. when World War II broke out and he joined the 90th Division of the 343rd Field Artillery.
He had dated his future wife, Verone, before the war, but they waited to marry until he returned because Stiebritz was concerned he would be injured and become a burden to her.
But he did return, unlike most of his original comrades. He married Verone 10 days later.
McCoy said her father has a strong faith and he used to tell her that he made it through the war because he knew he was in his mother’s prayers.
“I seemed to have escaped all the bullets,” Stiebritz said.
Like many World War II veterans, Stiebritz quickly fell back into civilian life and didn’t say much about the war for much of McCoy’s youth, she said.
A couple years after the war, Stiebritz and his wife built a house and Stiebritz lived there until age 92.
During that time, he worked at Weyerhaeuser Co. for 33 years, purchased and ran a bus company, and captained a sports fishing boat named Cindi’s Jim Dandy, named after their three children.
McCoy said she grew up in a “Leave it to Beaver” family with supportive and loving parents.
During the war, Stiebritz had stayed with a French family for a few days after U.S. troops liberated their town. The family was so grateful that they wrote him a Christmas card each year during McCoy’s childhood.
When his wife passed away in 1992, Stiebritz started attending military reunions. That was when McCoy heard about some of his war experiences for the first time.
A nurse told McCoy that her father was one of the only vets who didn’t have ugly feelings toward the war.
“He’s always been such a strong person that he just does what he has to do,” McCoy said. “He never complained about (the war). He’s just got a strong personality. I think he’s an unusual one.”
In March, Stiebritz received the medal and a letter from French President Francois Hollande bestowing the honor.