France says thank you to local veterans
Around 6 o’clock on the morning of D-day, Arthur Cotton was aboard a landing craft headed for the shores of Normandy, racing against time and the receding tide.
Within 3½ hours, the Navy Seabee and his crew found themselves stranded on Utah Beach by the tide, which ebbed as they raced to unload as many trucks, ambulances, and other vehicles as they could.
Cotton, a Framingham resident, is among 10 World War II veterans from Massachusetts and Rhode Island who are being honored Friday with France’s highest distinction, the French Legion of Honor, during a ceremony at the Museum of World War II in Natick.
The ceremony coincides with the 70th anniversary of the invasion in which 160,000 Allied troops landed along 50 miles of heavily fortified French coastline in Normandy to dislodge German forces.
Six more World War II veterans from Massachusetts and New Hampshire are also receiving the honor during a separate ceremony in Hyannis, said Fabien Fieschi, consul general of France in Boston.
Cotton, 89, who was 19 at the time of the invasion, said, “It was like taking part in a movie.
That’s why they get young kids to go in the service. They seem to be fearless.”
For the veterans, the decades have done little to dim the recollections of the desperate day that proved to be a turning point in the war.
Dedham resident Joseph Murphy, who was aboard a transport ship for most of D-day, said he saw a heavy German antiaircraft gun targeting landing ships as they neared Omaha beach.
“We could hear and see men dropping from the machine guns,” said the 88-year-old Murphy.
The former Navy signalman said he later was transferred onto a landing craft infantry ship, where he pulled guard duty at about 10 p.m. While on duty, Murphy said, he watched German forces illuminate the beach before launching an air raid.
“It was my first experience with an air raid,” Murphy said. “We woke up to the fact that there was a war on.”
The Legion of Honor awards are part of an effort started five years ago by the French government to do more to recognize World War II veterans for their role in liberating France from the Nazis during the war, Fieschi said.
Fieschi estimates that 40 to 50 World War II veterans from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have received the medal and decree every year.
“We want to say thank you,” Fieschi said. “We want to honor them with the Legion of Honor.”
Blake Hughes, a combat engineer with the Army’s 90th Infantry Division, said he arrived in Normandy after the invasion, on July 4, 1944. He called receiving the medal a tremendous honor.
“I’m very glad to . . . think that I had a little bit to do with the liberation of France,” said the 90-year-old Newburyport resident. “Everybody did their duty, and that was an honor in itself.”
Hyman Cashook, an 89-year-old Army veteran, said he feels good about the recognition. The Randolph resident said he arrived on Omaha Beach at the end of July 1944.
Another honoree, George Weir, remembered landing on Omaha Beach on a sunny day in mid-June 1944.
“We got on the beach and we drove,’’ the 90-year-old Abington resident said. “There was a hill, a long steep hill that we had to go up, and we got to the top of the hill and we started seeing all the damage that had been done. It was not a pretty sight.”
Of the Allied troops who landed in Normandy on D-day, about 10,000 were later counted as killed, wounded, missing in action, or taken prisoner, according to the website for the D-day Museum in the United Kingdom.
Among those who died was 19-year-old Army Private William Gatt Jr. of Brockton, said his younger brother, Bob, of East Bridgewater. A new bronze relief to replace a sign honoring Gatt was to be unveiled Friday at the intersection of Pleasant and Pearl streets in Brockton, said David Farrell the city’s veterans’ services officer.
Bob Gatt, who was 9 when his brother was killed, remembered getting the news at his family’s home on Dartmouth Street in Brockton.
“We got the telegram. The military car pulled up. At the time it was a dirt road, and three of my brothers were in the service. We knew something had happened, and my mother went out on the porch,” said Gatt, his voice shaking.
Then he could not finish the story.
“I can’t,” he said. “Every time it ends.”