WWII veterans awarded French Legion of Honor

PARKERSBURG – Three decorated World War II veterans on Saturday were recognized for receiving the French Legion of Honor for their service.

Walter Criss of Spencer, Holly D. Eagle Jr. of Mt. Zion and Denver Gandee of Spencer were feted at the Parkersburg Care Center on Gihon Road in a ceremony organized by the Marine Corps League and emceed by Thomas Coakley, local veterans services officer. Coakley nominated the three and brothers Denver and Donzel Walbrown of Spencer for the Legion of Honor, who also received the award.

The Legion of Honor was established in 1802 by Napoleon to recognize military service to France and was divided into five degrees, chevalier, officier, commandeur, grand officier and grand croix. It has evolved over the years and expanded to include civilian segments, including filmmakers and sports champions.

U.S. veterans who served in France during World War II qualify to be decorated as a knight, the chevalier degree.

Eagle, Criss and Gandee fought across France toward Germany in World War II.

Eagle, 89, was with the 82nd Airborne and jumped into France in advance of the main invasion on D-Day. Injuries prevented him from further jumps, so he was assigned to an infantry unit.

Among the towns where he fought was St. Lo. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal, a Presidential Unit Citation, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal with three bronze stars, the Combat Infantryman Badge, an Honorable Service Badge and Expert Badge.

“They tell me I’m an American hero. I gave some,” he said. “Those boys over there under those white crosses are the American heroes. They gave everything.”

Saturday was the 70th anniversary of when Gandee, 89, went into the U.S. Army. He served in a tank crew, landing on Utah Beach on D-Day plus 4.

He fought at St. Lo, participated in the victory parade through Paris, fought at the Battle of the Bulge and was severely injured at Remagen where the United States held the Ludendorff Bridge against the Germans. He served under Gen. George Patton with the unit nicknamed the bastard battalion.

“We didn’t belong to anybody,” Gandee said.

Gandee was severely injured in the leg at Remagen and would have died had it not been for two German medics who stopped the bleeding and saved his life. Like Eagle, he is a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

The Ludendorff Bridge crossed the Rhine River into Germany. Hitler ordered the bridge be destroyed and ordered the execution of the commanding officers for failing to do so.

“That was the worst battle I was in,” Gandee said.

Criss, 92, was 19 when he went in the army. He spent 25 months in Iceland before he was transferred to England where he stayed for seven months before he was sent to Normandy on D-Day plus 6 with the 955th Field Artillery.

“I rode across France,” he said.

Criss fought at St. Lo, across France into Germany and Czechoslovakia. He also served in Korea and retired from the military in 1964.

The Legion of Honor is a prestigious award, Coakley said.

Coakley cited his admiration for veterans such as Gandee, Criss, Eagle and the Walbrown brothers as his inspiration to serve 10 years in the military. They are examples of American patriots, he said.

“I just want to let them to know how proud I am to be part of this,” Coakley said.