Oakland Press: World War II veterans honored for their role in liberating France

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters’ mother, Madeleine, 91, remembers that, as a frightened teenager, she hid with her family in a ditch during World War II as the Germans occupied her hometown in France.

She remembers foraging for food in the woods.

She remembers how happy everyone in her town was to see American servicemen.

Peters (D-Michigan) recounted his mother’s experiences as he and Vincent Floreani, consul general of France for the Midwest, honored five Detroit-area veterans for their part in liberating France during the war. A sixth veteran was out of the country and will be honored later this month.

“On behalf of my mother, my entire extended family and the American people, I want to thank you,” Peters said to the men, honored at the Veterans Day tribute.

In a ceremony at the Shriners Center in Southfield, Floreani awarded the veterans the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal. Created by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1805, it is the highest honor that France bestows upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for the country.

“You left America at a young age for unknown lands to risk your life for a country that wasn’t even yours. Now it is,” Floreani said to the veterans.

The honored veterans are:

• Walter Bala of Southfield entered active duty in March 1943 at age 20. He served with the 8th Air Force, where he was an engineer-gunner. Bala flew 35 missions on B-24 heavy bombers. He was shot down on the 35th mission.

• John Clark of Ann Arbor entered active service in April 1944 at age 21. He served with the 8th Air Force, where he was a co-pilot with the 100th Bomb Group also known as the “Bloody Hundredth” due to their heavy combat losses at Thorpe Abbots in England earlier during the war. Clark flew 32 missions over Europe, including several in France.

• Mario Gizzi of Allen Park entered active service in September 1943 at age 23. He served with the 13th Infantry Regiment of the 8th Division. He took part in a number of campaigns in France and was wounded in action in February 1945.

• Robert Haffner of St. Clair Shores entered active service in July 1943 at age 19. He served with the 307th Airborne engineer Battalion attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, where he was a heavy duty truck driver. He took part in a number of campaigns in France.

• Alexander Jefferson of Southfield entered active service in January 1944 at age 23. He served with the 332nd “Red Tail” Fighter Group. Jefferson, a fighter pilot, was part of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces. He was shot down in southern France, was injured and was held as a prisoner of war for eight months.

Though he participated in the ceremony, Jefferson will officially receive his medal Saturday at a ceremony at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum.

• Guy Stern of Farmington Hills was not present at the ceremony Friday and will receive his medal later this month. He was a master sergeant with the 106th Infantry Division and received a number of medals for his service.

Additional U.S. service members involved in liberating France will be honored at other ceremonies in the area in the coming months.

By:  Anne Runkle
Source: The Oakland Press