World War II vet receives France's highest honor for service at Normandy
NORTH MANKATO — More than 70 years ago today, Russell Miller, 89, of North Mankato, was among the American soldiers in the historic Omaha Beach, D-Day invasion at dawn on June 6, 1944.
The 89-year-old World War II veteran was among the 29th Division's front-line infantryman who, as soon as they entered the sea waters near Vierville-sur-Mehr, found themselves at battle with France's Nazi occupiers.
Omaha Beach was the code name for one of the five sectors of the Allied invasion on the Normandy coast that faces the English Channel. U.S. troops suffered heavy losses on Omaha Beach before the Germans began to abandon their fortifications.
Just a few weeks ago, Miller got a letter from the French government recognizing him for his contributions in the battle to liberate France.
The French Consulate in Chicago had written to thank Miller for his military service. Soon after, that diplomatic office sent a French Legion of Honor medal to Miller's home.
Pascale Furlong of the consulate's media staff said the award is the highest honor France can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for her country. The medal was first created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Furlong said Miller and other Americans who are Omaha Beach veterans are well-deserving of the honor.
"For 70 years we have lived in peace. We didn't have to go back to living like that (under occupation)," she said.
Since his retirement from the U.S. Post Office, Miller has been researching our country's efforts to liberate French citizens under military occupation by Hitler's Germany and other World War II topics.
"When you are in war, you only see where you are, you have no idea of the history of the other places (where battles were fought)," he said.
Miller also has found time to write down his experiences in "One Man's Story of World War II: From Omaha Beach to Germany." The self-published work was a way Miller could explain to his family what he had been through.
The letter and Medal of Honor may have provided details that may prompt Miller to add an epilogue to his book.
More than 1,000 Americans have been awarded Legion of Honor medals from the Chicago office's region since the recognition program was established in 2004.
To explain why the French national honor is given to Americans, Furlong forwarded Consul General Vincent Floreani's comments in an electronic message:
"71 years ago today, many young Americans put their ideals, their might and their courage to the service of the liberation of my country, to the service of democracy and the dignity of humankind. From June 6, 1944, they fought bravely battles after battles across France, and witnessed the worst of the war.
Twice last century, in 1917 and 1944, American soldiers restored freedom to my country. France and the French people will never forget what we owe America, our steadfast friend, partner and ally. From Lafayette and Yorktown to the battlefields of World War I and the beaches of Normandy, our two countries have always stood shoulder-to-shoulder to defend and promote the values of freedom and democracy that are the core of who we are.
71 years later, it is that same hope, that same ideal that we owe to those men whom we shall never, can never, forget. To us, the French people, the American veterans are heroes."
Miller was wounded in a battle near the French town of Saint Lo Aug. 2, 1944.
"The Germans were firing at us with tanks. Shrapnel hit my left shoulder and my back," he said.
After two months of hospitalization in England, Miller was released.
"They patched me up and sent me back," he said.
Miller returned to the same outfit. Months later, while fighting within Germany's borders, he was hit by a shell fragment. The front part of a leg was injured and a foot was broken.
"After a couple of months in a London hospital, I was returned to the U.S.," Miller said.
He was shipped to a stateside Army hospital. That's where he was when the Empire of Japan officially surrendered in September 1945. Miller was discharged about a month later.
"I was so happy the war was finally over," he said.
After completing his military service, Miller returned to his family's farm near Canby. There, he became reacquainted with a woman he had first met when they were young, Carol Hanson.
"I married a girl I met on the school bus," he said.
His wife died in 2008 at Mankato. Miller is the father of three and he has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Bette Berndt said the medal her father received is quite impressive.
"I just thank God I made it through (the war) safely." Miller said.