Nearly 70 years ago, Harper Griswold, 88, was one of the 160,000 Allied troops taking part in the fight to liberate France from German occupation during World War II.
For his efforts, Griswold was named "Chevalier" of the Legion of Honor by the French Republic and was officially honored for his service at an award ceremony held at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Jan. 27.
Griswold was a petty officer second class aboard the H.M.S. Ceres on D-Day.
The cruiser was a critical vessel because it was the base from which the movement of convoys coming from England was controlled.
"I was up on the deck of the ship and I couldn't see the end of the ships anywhere," said Griswold, a resident of the Charlestown retirement community on Maiden Choice Lane. "There was a line of airplanes coming in and dropping their bombs."
Griswold described the scene as "mind boggling."
"It was a continuous circle where they would drop their bombs, come back and reload again," he said.
The planes were supplying air cover for an ambitious, amphibious landing of Allied troops on the morning of Tuesday, June 6, 1944, on the beaches of Normandy, an assault best known as D-Day.
One of the largest amphibious assaults in history, the operation was code named Operation Overlord and was a turning point in the war.
It was the second of two phases of the operation that ultimately drove the Germans from France during World War II.
The first landing of airborne troops had occurred right after midnight.
Griswold was just 18 years old at the time. He had joined the Navy at 17 in order to avoid being drafted into the Army. His father had been a member of a machine gun battalion during World War I and didn't want his son to experience the perils of being on the frontlines of war.
It won't be the first award he's received for his service in the invasion of Normandy. In 2001, he was honored with the commemorative Jubilee of Liberty Medal by U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings.
Griswold never made it to the beach of Normandy, where so many soldiers were killed.
According to the D-Day Museum website, the Allies landed around 156,000 troops in Normandy, supported by 11,590 aircraft.
There is no "official" casualty figure for D-Day, according to the website, due to the chaos and numbers of forces involved in the event.
The Allied forces suffered and estimated 10,000 casualties for D-Day, though "recent painstaking research by the US National D-Day Memorial Foundation has achieved a more accurate — and much higher — figure for the Allied personnel who were killed on D-Day. They have recorded the names of individual Allied personnel killed and so far they have verified 2,499 American D-Day fatalities and 1,914 from the other Allied nations, a total of 4,413 dead (much higher than the traditional figure of 2,500 dead)."
"I'm one of the lucky ones who didn't have to go through hell," Griswold said.
"The men who died in the trenches are the ones who deserved [to be honored]," he said on his reaction to being named a Chevalier..
Griswold said he had been promoted to second class petty officer thanks to his efforts studying a manual for the exam.
"I got the highest mark," he said.
It also saved his life, he said.
He had put in a transfer from a boat, which was later destroyed by the Germans.
"If I didn't study for that test, I would have been on that boat. You're talking about fate," he said.
Remembering the sight of New York harbor as he returned to the United State when the war in Europe was over he said, "The prettiest thing I ever saw was the Statue of Liberty."
When he was discharged from the Navy, he took up a career as an arborist in Texas.
He eventually made his way to Maryland, and worked for Johns Hopkins Hospital as a ground supervisor from 1961 to 1971.
He then went on to work as a grounds manager at General Electric in Columbia.
He has two children, Leah Griswold Rudolph and Scott Griswold.
His wife, Kathryn Griswold, a nurse who graduated from Johns Hopkins University, died in 1998 at the age of 72.
Among his friends at Charlestown retirement center are six other D-Day veterans, which he said provide him with camaraderie.
"It's a buddy system that's hard to describe," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun