Baltimore veteran to receive France's highest honor for WWII service

The American troops had been stalled for a month, waiting for fuel outside Montcourt in northern France. When Harold Shapiro and his division mates finally advanced on the tree line, they had to cross foxholes booby-trapped with German explosives. Artillery rained down on their position.

The morning after the ferocious assault, Shapiro walked to the center of the American line, where his former platoon had been stationed. He saw a private named Clarence sitting all by himself.

"Where are the rest of the guys?" Shapiro asked.

"I'm it," said Clarence, who had ascended from private to sergeant simply by surviving the night intact. Everyone else had been killed or wounded

"Boy, that really shook me up," Shapiro says 67 years later, from the comfort of his couch inMount Washington.

For his fortitude on that and many other terrifying days during World War II, Shapiro will be named a Chevalier, or knight, in France's Legion of Honor at a ceremony in Washington on Monday, the 67th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy

He had almost forgotten sending his military records to the French government for consideration when the May 27 letter arrived, saying he would be knighted "as a sign of France's gratitude for your personal contribution to the liberation of our country during World War II."

Since the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004, France has bestowed the honor on hundreds of U.S. veterans. French diplomats have criss-crossed the country, trying to reach the old soldiers while they're still around to appreciate the recognition.

The medal, a golden medallion surrounded by five rays of white enamel and set over a wreath of green leaves, is the highest honor France can give. Shapiro, 87, will add it to a collection that includes the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

"I think my grandchildren are more impressed than I am," says Shapiro, who loves telling war stories but dismisses attempts to make him sound too noble.

"It was a job," he likes to say. "You just did these things."

Not that he fails to appreciate the thanks of the French people. He returned to Europe for the 50th anniversary of D-Day and visited the town of Bezange-la-Petite, near those woods where his former outfit was cut to shreds. He and the other men swelled with emotion as they listed to a chorus of French schoolchildren sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." When they went to visit the woods, a Frenchman with a metal detector found a 30-caliber shell casing that had remained there all those decades. Shapiro still has it.

"I think he's excited about it," Millie, his wife of 64 years, says of the continued recognition.

Shapiro was just a teenager from Boston, unsure what the future held, when he entered the Army in 1943. First, they sent him to the University of Maine to learn electrical engineering, but that only lasted four months. The need for infantrymen was more urgent.

Shapiro, known to his peers as "Shappy," was still in the U.S. on D-Day. The 26th Infantry, known as the "Yankee Division," shipped for France in September 1944. Shapiro slept deep in the bowels of the USS Argentina, by the engine room. One day, he managed to obtain a box of cigars for a member of the ship's civilian crew. The next night, the man showed up with a whole apple pie for Shapiro and his buddies.

"That's like manna from heaven," he says, as if he can taste the pie 67 years later. "We were eating Spam and deck bread twice a day."

After 10 days, he stepped from the ship to a transport boat that carried him directly to Omaha Beach at Normandy. He doesn't remember any grand feelings about setting foot in France, just a lot of trucks, boxes and confusion. His division moved from town to town, nearing the German lines by mid-October.

Back in the U.S., Shapiro had trained as part of a three-man crew that fired Browning mounted machine guns (he still keeps in touch with Sy Kudwitt, the gunner). But his fate lay elsewhere.

Because he learned German in high school, his captain asked him to join a small unit that would manage prisoners of war captured on the front lines. "Join it," his platoon mates urged him. "You got a better chance of surviving."

Sure enough, his new job placed him on the left flank during that assault on the Montcourt woods. "I would have been one of them," he says, reflecting on his less-fortunate friends in the center.

Shapiro's odyssey ultimately took him to Belgium, Luxembourg and into Germany as part of the decisive Rhineland campaign. His memories are by turns sobering, hilarious and frightening.

There was the night when he and his buddies stumbled on a reserve of cognac and got so universally drunk that Shapiro swears the Germans could have walked in and taken the town without a shot.

The soldiers had been warned not to harm any French livestock, but on another glorious night, a German mortar took out a pig and gave them an unexpected feast after weeks of skimpy rations.

There was the surreal morning when he watched a tank battle unfold in the valley below him as he stepped behind a building to relieve himself. "Oh, the things you remember," he says.

Another time, when he left a bunker to relieve himself, he felt a sniper's bullet whiz just in front of his nose. He scurried back with his pants around his ankles.

The Battle of the Bulge left him some of his worst memories. Frostbite numbed his hands. He took shrapnel in his arm. He watched an ambulance full of wounded comrades tumble off the side of an icy mountain road. He held a ladder so his sergeant could pull burning men from the second floor of a building that had just been shelled.

Ultimately, it was not a wound but a case of hepatitis that caused him to be taken from the front lines to a hospital in England. By the time he rejoined his division in Czechoslovakia, the Germans had surrendered. Shapiro thought briefly that he would be sent to Japan, but two atomic bombs ended the need for that. He returned home in 1946.

Shapiro married Millie, who had corresponded with him throughout the war, and they had three children. He became a salesman in Chattanooga, Tenn. and for years, spoke little of the war. "He really didn't want to burden you with the horrors that he saw," says his daughter, Linda Stone.

But as he got older, he started telling the stories to his grandchildren and then to school classes. He and Millie moved to Baltimore nine years ago to be close to their daughters.

At the medal ceremony on Monday, Shapiro's mind will likely run to the bittersweet. Surrounded by proud family members, he'll also think of the rapidly thinning crowd at reunions of his regiment and of the men who never made it out of those woods in northern France.

"That's something," he says, "that has remained with me for a long time."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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