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Detroit News: France awards 5 Metro Detroit WWII vets with high honor

Alexander Jefferson vividly remembers being shot down over France during World War II when he was a pilot with the 332nd Tuskegee Airmen Red Tail Squadron.

“I was at about 200 feet when a shell came through the floor,” the retired lieutenant colonel said of the Aug. 12, 1944, event. “When I bailed out, I landed in the middle of a group of Germans. They were surprised to see me.

“One guy even saluted me when he saw the little gold bar on my collar.”

Jefferson, 94, who was born in Detroit, made the remarks during a special ceremony held at the Shriners’ Silver Gardens Event Center where he and four other Metro Detroit World War II veterans were honored on Veterans Day by France’s Consul General for the Midwest.

The other veterans honored were:

?Walter Bala, 93, of Southfield served with the U.S. 8th Air Force. He served in northern France, Ardennes and Rhineland.

?John Clark, 93, of Ann Arbor served with the 100th Bomb Group, U.S. 8th Air Force, as a co-pilot on B-24 bombers. He completed 32 missions over Germany and flew missions in Europe.

?Mario Gizzi, 96, of Allen Park served with the 13th infantry regiment of the 8th Division. He served in Normandy, northern France, Rhineland and central Europe.

?Robert Haffner, 91, of St. Clair Shores served with the 307th Airborne Engineer Battalion with the 82nd Airborne Division. Haffner served in Normandy, France, Ardennes, Rhineland, Germany, and central Europe.

Vincent Floreani, French Consul General for the Midwest, presented four of the vets with France’s Knight of the Legion of Honor Medal.

Created by Napoleon Bonaparte, the medal is the highest honor the country bestows on people who have carried out actions of great value to the nation, Floreani said.

The consul said he will present Jefferson with his medal Saturday during a ceremony at the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum in Detroit.

Floreani awarded the vets the medals for their role in helping liberate the European nation from Nazi occupation.

“Thanks to men like you, France has lived in peace for several decades,” he said. “Every person in France has a special place in their heart for you.”

Floreani was joined by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. Peters told the vets how his mother was a teen in France during World War II.

“Both the American people and the people of France are truly grateful for everything you have done for our two nations,” Peters said. “Thank you for your patriotism, your sacrifice and your willingness to liberate a country that was not your own. Your service and dedication to defending the American ideals of liberty, equality and justice for all will never be forgotten.”

The senator also passed along his mother’s gratitude to the veterans.

After getting his medal, Clark said to the consul: “Merci beaucoup! Vie le France! (Thank you very much! Long live France!)”

America has about 21 million military veterans and more than 600,000 live in Michigan, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. The country has about 695,000 World War II veterans and Michigan has 37,200 veterans who served during that war, according to the VA.

Jefferson thanked the consul and the people of France for the medal, but he said it wasn’t just for him.

“I simply wish to remember all of the guys out of my squadron, out of my group, who died in Germany and France,” he said. “It’s a great honor, but I think this medal I’m about to receive tomorrow, they deserve.”