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94-year-old receives French honor

Some things are still hard for David Lester to talk about, as they would be for anyone who's seen his friends die and rivers turn red with blood.

Eventually the 94-year-old Costa Mesa resident did open up, in the form of a 400-page manuscript, "A Combat Engineer," detailing his life and World War II experiences in Europe. He has since condensed it into a smaller book that has a strategically placed "Made in America" sticker on the cover.

Since last month, Lester has had something new to add to his memoirs: the National Order of the Legion of Honor from the French government. The award that dates to the days of Napoleon is the highest honor France grants to its citizens and foreign nationals.

Lester and five others received the medal during a private ceremony in Hawthorne earlier this summer.

The former Army soldier was acknowledged for his service in the liberation of France, the Battle of the Bulge and the Allied crossing into Germany.

"I was glad to get it," Lester said about receiving the award. "Any time your services are recognized, any time you do a good job, it pays."

Lester tried to bring some humor to the event. He told the French consul general merci, merci beaucoup — thank you, thank you very much — and later popped out a vive la France!

"That got a chuckle among the crowd," Lester said. "It was quite a crowd."

*

Great Depression roots

The man whose great-great-grandfather was Davy Crockett isn't as fast as he used to be — "to think I used to climb mountains!" — but his mind is still sharp. Lester, born in May 1919, grew up poor on a "one-horse" farm outside Oklahoma City. The family's storm cellar, which they called their "fraidy hole," was stocked with enough emergency rations to last them through the worst tornado.

Over the years, the farm grew just about everything.

"We even grew rattlesnakes," Lester said with a quiet chuckle.

After WWII started in December 1941, Lester wanted to enlist but was given a "critical defense" deferment because of his job working on aircraft in San Diego. After the D-Day landings in June of 1944, he was finally able to enlist in the Army because, as he puts it, the United States by that point needed more men to fight than aircraft to fly.

He became a replacement member of the 30th Infantry Division, nicknamed the "Old Hickory" to honor President Andrew Jackson. It was formed during World War I using units from Tennessee and the Carolinas.

Being about 25 at the time of his enlistment, he was the "old man" among younger soldiers. He can still fondly remember their names and backgrounds.

Take Marcus Hudgens of Tennessee, who could hardly read and "came from so far in the hills that they probably had to pipe daylight to him," Lester said. "But by golly, he knew how to soldier. I used to write his letters home for him and read them to him."

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Becoming a combat engineer

When the Battle of the Bulge started in December 1944, then-Pfc. Lester was in a field hospital in Belgium recovering from frostbite and a case of walking pneumonia. But once news spread of Hitler's aggressive offensive through the Ardennes, only the most severely wounded stayed put.

As Lester and two others waited to head out and back into combat, they realized the truck to take them away wasn't coming. In all the confusion, Lester recalled, "trucks were disappearing."

Soon enough, one did come. On the truck's large bumper, in white paint, Lester could read the outfit to which it belonged: "A" Co., 105th Engineer Combat Battalion.

And with the help of a smooth-talking Army buddy who "could sell an Eskimo an ice cream bar," Lester and his colleagues managed to board the truck and race off to join the combat engineers — a position that involved building bridges, defusing mines and doing enemy reconnaissance, none of which they had trained for.

Decades later, Lester credits that moment for his long life. If he had stayed with the infantry, he doesn't think he would have survived the war.

"I've got a picture of all the guys that finished basic training with me," Lester said. "Most of them were killed."

One of Lester's most vivid memories was when he got wounded on a cold and dark February morning in 1945 while assembling a bridge over the Roer River that would help pave the path into Germany. He had set his rifle down when he noticed the enemy on a slope above him, tossing grenades in his direction.

"If I had my rifle, it would've been like shooting ducks in a barrel, because they were there," Lester recalled. "But in the only time in combat that I didn't have my rifle with me, all I had to do was sit as small as I could, as quietly as I could, and hunker down in the mud."

Most grenades missed him, but one didn't. Its ricochet hit him in the left leg. His sock became soaked in blood.

A medic treated the wound on the spot, and afterward, Lester remembered watching thousands of soldiers cross the bridge with a ghostlike quiet before the hellish chaos of combat and artillery ensued.

*

Enduring gratitude

With an honorable discharge for his service, Lester returned to his old job working on aircraft in San Diego and, when the Korean War broke out, he served as a reserve staff sergeant but was never deployed.

Lester then spent 40 years in the aerospace industry, a field he broke into with little formal education.

"The word 'engineer' on my record apparently swung it," Lester said with a laugh.

His supervisors credited his meticulous approach to work.

Lester has been a Costa Mesa resident since the late 1960s and lives in Mesa del Mar. He and his wife had five children, and today he's a grandpa and great-grandpa.

Lester also is a charter member of the Freedom Committee of Orange County, through which he and other veterans provide a "living history" account of WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

In 1994, the same year the Freedom Committee was formed, Lester and his wife visited Europe. Once there, Lester retraced his steps as a young man fighting across the continent. Even 50 years later, gratitude for the Americans' sacrifice has endured, he said.

"We couldn't buy a meal," Lester said. "People were begging us to come to their house for dinner."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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