In a private ceremony at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead Friday, Persons and 10 other WWII veterans will receive France’s highest military accolade. He served as a first lieutenant in the Army’s 142nd Engineer Combat Battalion, 42nd Infantry Division, where he was an engineer.
Persons already received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal for his efforts during the war. The 90-year-old was humbled by his latest award.
“I feel quite honored to be in the company of … [French legends Louis] Pasteur, [Marie] Curie, [Charles] de Gaulle,” said Persons, who retired as a captain. “I’m happy to have it. I think it probably should more likely be given to some of those [soldiers] that I knew that died in France or Germany.”
The other veterans being honored are: Claude Williams Jr. of Athens (captain, Infantry, U.S. Army Reserve); Richard S. Bailey of Kennesaw (first lieutenant, 322nd Bombardment Group, 9th Air Force); Stanley C. Lester of Warner Robins (master sergeant, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division); Floyd A. Hightower of Columbus (technical sergeant, 117th Infantry, 30th Division); Charles F. Goodgame of Chattanooga, Tenn. (technician 4th Grade, 752nd Engineer Parts Supply Company, First Army); Nathan H. Acker of Elberton (corporal, 379th Infantry Regiment, 95th Division); Homer E. Holbrook of Fayetteville (corporal, 60th Infantry Regiment, 9th Division); Harold F. Powers of Athens (private first class, 501st Parachute Regiment, 101st Airborne Division). Also, Jonell Cash of Watkinsville and Yvonne Higginbotham of Athens, the widows of late honorees Thomas B. Cash and Clarence M. Higginbotham, respectively, will be present to accept the medal on behalf of their late husbands.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta, will attend the ceremony.
Persons’ division landed in Marseille, France, and led a convoy through several towns in northern France, eventually reaching the German border.
“We attacked [the Germans] at the Hartz Mountains on March 15, 1945,” he said. “I was deployed as an engineer reconnaissance officer. I had a jeep and driver and drove the lines. I happened to go into a little town in Germany, Ludwigsvinkel. There was cavalry reconnaissance unit in the town at the time. The Saarbach River. Out of curiosity I went down unescorted between there and close to the Saarbach River where I could observe that the [two] bridges were intact. It was contested country. I had to be careful not to be killed. I got back OK and reported back to my battalion commander who reported it back to division.
“Apparently it was more important than I thought it was because they determined to attack over the bridges the next night. I was present in the bunker when the attack was taking place. Nothing was happening so I went down to observe what was there. I looked at the bridges and they looked fine. I went down across the bridges on a hill and smoked a cigarette. About an hour after I was down there, the infantry moved down there. The Germans blew up one of the bridges and killed a number of engineers who were taking explosives out from under it. ... I won the Silver Star [for] enabling us to make the attack. Then I led a platoon of engineers through Wurzburg, Nuremberg, Dachau and Munich.”
The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and recognizes outstanding service to France. The country awards WWII veterans to thank them for their role in France regaining its freedom. Partly because many veterans of that war are dying, the French government is hosting the ceremonies more often.
“It is always with great emotion that I meet these veterans who left their homes to fight for a land they’d never seen, to restore liberty and democracy,” Denis Barbet, the French consul general of Atlanta, said in an email. “We the French are truly grateful for the courageous service of these men who are and will forever be our heroes.”