Dwight D. Eisenhower. Douglas MacArthur. Alvin C. York.
James White finds it comical that his name can be mentioned in the same breath as these three men.
“I’m not worthy of being listed at the same level with Eisenhower, MacArthur, Earl Rudder, Audie Murphy and Sergeant York,” White, 87, said with a laugh.
Larry Wayne, a retired lieutenant colonel who came to know White through both men’s work in the 103rd Infantry Division Association, holds a dissenting view.
“I have a very deep feeling about all World War II veterans,” Wayne, who lives in Madisonville, Tenn., said in a phone interview. “I truly believe they are our greatest generation and they deserve all the respect we can give them.”
It was at Wayne’s urging that White was submitted as a candidate for the French Legion of Honor medal — the highest military decoration bestowed by France. The award is divided into five degrees — Knight, Officer, Commander, Grand Officer and Grand Cross — and is reserved for United States veterans who participated in the liberation of France during World War II. Veterans must have already earned a medal for valor, a Purple Heart or have been taken as a Prisoner of War to be considered.
“When I found out the French government was beginning to look back at all the veterans who served, I strongly suggested to Jim and all the other veterans who were living to avail themselves of the award,” Wayne said.
White was notified by Washington’s French ambassador that he had been appointed a Knight by decree of President Francois Hollande. He received the medal at a Feb. 1 ceremony in Houston.
While White is honored, he refuses to take all the credit for the award.
“I don’t consider it personal,” he said. “I consider it recognition for my comrades that served with me in France.”
The accolade is just one among several that White has collected for his service — including a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, an Armed Forces Reserve medal, and American and Europe-African-Middle-East Campaign medals with two battle stars.
White was born on July 4, 1925 — a fact that, when reflecting on his life, seems almost poetic.
“I was around the Veterans of Foreign Wars when I was about that high,” said White, holding his hand approximately two feet above the floor of his Nederland home. “My dad was in the infantry and fought in France in World War I. He also was down on the Mexican border chasing Pancho Villa before going to France.”
White enlisted in the Army during the spring of 1943, while he was still a senior at Port Neches High School. After completing basic training in Fort McClellan, Ala., he was then assigned to study engineering in the Army Specialized Training Program at Texas A&M University. Due to a dire need for replacements overseas, White was called to active duty the day before his 18th birthday. He was assigned to the 103rd Infantry and stationed in France — where, during a counterattack in a town called Steige, he was wounded by a German grenade.
“What we had done is taken a French truck, pushed it and put it crossways, just to be an obstacle,” White remembered. “We’d put a machine gun there. And that night during the counterattack, while I was on the machine gun, I was wounded by one of these hand grenades — they could throw these further than we could throw ours, so it was unfair. It got my leg, my knee and my right foot.”
Just hearing him describe the injury evokes sensations of excruciating pain. However, White recalled feeling a surprising lack of it.
“Some people have asked me if it hurt when I was wounded,” he said. “No. You know when you have a penetrating wound, all you get is a burning sensation. I had a burning sensation in my leg. I reached down there and I could feel metal, and it was damp. The other boy that was with me on the machine gun said, ‘I’ve been hit.’ I told him, ‘I have too.’”
White surmised that the ensuing blackout from the pain caused a time lapse, because the next thing he remembers is realizing he wasn’t alone.
“After a little bit I looked around and I was there by myself,” White said. “I heard something, and on the other side of the truck I saw a man with a rifle squat to look up under the truck. He had on an overcoat that went down to his ankles. We weren’t wearing overcoats. The Germans were.”
Fortunately White had the presence of mind to escape to a nearby building, where his infantry had set up medical headquarters.
“I unloaded my pistol and got to a building about 60 to 70 feet away, took my pistol, knocked a window out, and then went into the building,” White said. “Some of my buddies later were laughing at me and asked me why I didn’t go through the door three feet away. I didn’t see the door.
“After awhile, I said something about being cold, and one of the medics said, ‘He’s going into shock.’ I said, ‘I am not going into shock, damn it, I’m just cold!’”
White never knew the name of the town until he returned to France with his infantry in 1989.
“The man that organized our get-together was awarded a special French commemoration medal,” he said. “Some of the others were told that later on we would be honored. I guess this is the culmination of that.”
Even while being showered with praise and gratitude for his service, White maintains a sense of humility.
“As I pointed out, I don’t consider it personal,” he said. “I think the French just had to find somebody to give a medal to.”
Once again, Wayne finds himself disagreeing with White.
“My uncle had served during World War II, and he was sort of a role model — someone I tried to emulate in my leadership,” Wayne said. “Jim reminds me an awful lot of my uncle. He’s an outstanding individual — truly selfless.
“Jim is a stalwart of the community in my book.”
France recognizes a liberator
Dwight D. Eisenhower. Douglas MacArthur. Alvin C. York.
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