French Government honors WWII veteran's D-Day service
August 16, 2012
CAMP SHELBY MISS., -- According to Gunnery Mate Second Class Oscar Russell, he wasn't a hero. He was just a guy who believed in God and country. Everyone else in the room knew the truth: he was a hero and an inspiration to many.
Sixty-eight years after D-Day, Russell received the French Legion of Honor for his actions during World War II. The Honorary Consul to France, Keltoum Roland and Lt. Col. Phillippe Testart, French liaison officer to the Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning Ga, awarded Russell the medal on Aug. 15, during in a ceremony held at the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center, Miss.
"France can never enough thank the men and women who, like you, Mr. Russell, accepted to stand up and make a step forward to fight tyranny... This individual tribute is a fair act made by the saved one to the one who saved him. We will thank you today, bending our heads in humility, because you accepted to experience the worst to allow opus to live the best," said Testart.
The Legion of Honor, France's highest award, acknowledges military or civic services rendered to France by persons of great merit.
"Today, we honor an American hero," said Roland. "As a French citizen, I want to express the profound gratitude of my country to Oscar Russell, his family and to all veterans for their service during World War II."
On June 6, 1944, D-Day, Russell, of Biloxi Miss., was in the first wave of landing crafts to hit Omaha Beach, Normandy France. He was 21-years old. His landing craft navigated through mine-infested waters with the goal of delivering a team of 50 U.S. Army Rangers to the beach so they could breach obstacles, secure the beach, take out machine gun nests and help take the fight inland. All around him, men were being killed and injured. Despite the odds, Russell's landing craft was successful and they delivered their cargo. However, the sand damaged the boat's generator and engines and Russell and his crew stayed on Omaha Beach more than 20 days, rendering aid to the wounded and burying the dead.
"I don't know how to put into words such personal courage," said Maj. Gen. Kevin R. Wendel, commanding general, First Army Division East, guest speaker at the ceremony. "I just know I stand here today because great men of uncommon valor, like Oscar Russell, stepped forward and volunteered when their country and the world needed them and pressed forward under insurmountable odds to fight for each other and the freedom of millions around the world. I do know that I am truly honored to meet him and be in the company of such a hero."
Russell's grandson, 1st Lt. Rodney Brock, 177th Armored Brigade, First Army Division East, submitted his grandfather for the award. Brock said during his deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, he frequently thought about what his grandfather faced during WWII.
"This is probably one of the proudest days of my life," he said. Brock said his grandfather's service inspired him to join the military. As part of First Army Division East, Brock mobilizes, trains and validates Reserve Component Soldiers for deployments around the world.
"I must admit, when I wrote the government of France, I had no idea all this would happen," said Brock, referring to the standing-room full of people, including local dignitaries, representatives of Mississippi's congressional members, four media outlets and Brock's commanding general who spoke during the ceremony. "I thought it would be a small family ceremony. My grandfather has inspired me throughout my life so to see him being honored today in front of so many people; words cannot express how proud I feel."
For Testart, pinning the award on Russell was more than just an official duty. It was an honor on several levels.
"We usually say it is an honor to be awarded a medal, but today, the honor is on our side," Testart explained, referring to the French government and himself. "In June 1940, France experienced the worst thing that could happen to a democratic free country: losing freedom and having its fate placed in the hands of the most tyrannical government mankind has ever produced. France and the French people never forgot that moment. While awarding you, Mr. Russell, we are remembering at the same time the past and our duties for a better future."
Testart also had a personal reason for participating. "In your memoirs, years after the war, you describe a dream ....where God told you, 'My child, it is over, do not fear for you are safe now.' On June 6, my father was an 11-year old orphan child, with no dream, trapped in a starving Paris," said Testart, staring at Russell. He went on to relate his father's memories of Jewish classmates who disappeared, never to return, the bells tolling the liberation of Paris and of the first piece of chocolate he ever had, given to him by an American Soldier.
"Later, he made me visit Omaha Beach because he knew his dream began there. He certainly knew that your actions, Mr. Russell, allowed him to make the same dream, "My child, it is over, do not fear, you are safe now," Testart remembered.
"I just feel humble and proud," Russell said of both his service and the award. "It makes me feel proud that I could help give a nation freedom."