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After Decades, Elderly Veterans Receive Highest Honor A Unit Can Receive


So this country has corrected an oversight three-quarters of a century old. The correction came just in time for a handful of remaining men from one of the Second World War's best units. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Ninety-six-year-old King Kenny wished he hadn't left his hearing aid on the dresser. He wanted to savor words he had feared would never come.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: By direction of the secretary of the Army, the Presidential Unit Citation is awarded to the 30th Infantry Division.

PRICE: The formal presentation of the highest honor a unit can receive, braving the pandemic seemed like an afterthought to the six elderly veterans who traveled to Raleigh and wore masks for the ceremony. Tony Jaber, who's 95, came from Louisiana.

TONY JABER: I stay in the house all the time. This is the first time I really been out in a long time. I wouldn't miss it.

PRICE: The 30th is the predecessor of a current North Carolina Guard unit. Historians believe it deserved the citation for several battles. But in the end, the unit was awarded for fierce fighting at the French town of Mortain just after the Normandy invasion. Desperate to stop the allies push into Europe, Hitler himself had ordered a massive counterattack with some of his best tank units and 80,000 soldiers. In its path was the 30th, outnumbered nearly 7-1.

KING KENNY: The first SS Panzer division hit us on a roadblock. And we could not see.

PRICE: It was foggy, said King Kenny, who was in an anti-tank battalion.

KENNY: But the captain of the gun company said fire at the muzzle blasts. Throughout the day and the night, we knocked out 14 enemy tanks.

PRICE: The Americans suffered thousands of casualties but, in a pivotal moment for the allies, stopped the counterattack. After the war, a panel of Army historians charged with determining which units deserved recognition rated the 30th the top performing U.S. infantry division in the entire European theater. The Pentagon started the paperwork to award it the citation. But the bureaucratic process somehow stalled for decades.

WES MORRISON: This is where the World War II vets come in. They have been working on this for 20-plus years.

PRICE: Colonel West Morrison is the North Carolina Army National Guard's chief of staff.

MORRISON: They had gone to the National Archives. They had pulled troves of documents. They give them to me at reunion saying, here, use this - whatever you can do to try to get a Presidential Unit Citation.

PRICE: Morrison, a trained historian, dug through the paperwork and found documents showing the 30th had been approved for the citation shortly after the war. That gave the Guard and members of Congress ammunition to lobby the Army. They did that for years with little result. Then in 2018, President Trump came to Charlotte. Waiting on the airport tarmac were state Guard leaders and a secret weapon, King Kenny, armed with the historical documents and the moral authority of a 94-year-old war hero.

KENNY: And he said, what can I do for you? And I said, you can sign the Presidential Unit Citation for the 30th division's actions at Mortain. And his comment was I will if I find nothing wrong with it.

PRICE: Morrison said Kenny's brief exchange with the president broke the logjam. The award came at the last minute, though. At various points in the war, more than 34,000 men served in the division. Now, only an estimated 200 are still alive. Among the small group of people who came to the ceremony was a woman in a T-shirt. It read, in loving memory of my father, First Lieutenant Charles O. Hardman (ph).

SARAH HARDMAN GIACCHINO: He went to his grave wondering why the 30th had not been recognized for the Presidential Unit Citation.

PRICE: Sarah Hardman Giacchino (ph) grew up hearing her father's stories. He even visited Mortain with her.

GIACCHINO: He took me there to this valley and showed me where these tanks were coming out of all this fog. And he said, Sarah, all hell broke loose. He said, they had so much stronger and heavier tanks. And he said, my guys would have to go up if the turret was open and drop a grenade in there because that's the only way they could penetrate one of their tanks.

PRICE: But somehow, Charles Hardman and the other soldiers of the 30th did what they had to do at Mortain. And while thousands of them will never know it, their old comrades and the National Guard made sure they finally got their due.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Raleigh.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "FLUID DYNAMICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.