CLAVERACK–Ralph Avery was a 17 year old kid on June 6, 1944, and he was a gunner’s mate on a Navy vessel that landed on Omaha Beach. The beach was the site of some of the most intense fighting in the Allied invasion of Normandy. Code named Operation Overlord, the invasion commenced June 6, when 160,000 American British and Canadian troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in German occupied France. Nick-named D-Day, it is commonly thought of here as the beginning of the end of World War II.
This year, on August 19, the French government honored Mr. Avery with France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor medal.
Ralph Avery is one of a dwindling number of veterans who were there on D-Day. He was a gunner’s mate on a vessel known as an LCT or Landing Craft-Tank, a 110-foot vessel with a crew of 13, whose primary purpose was to ferry tanks or other heavy equipment and land them on a beach by means of a drop-down door at the bow. His memory of the day and subsequent days ebbs and flows these days. He admits to still having nightmares even now more than 77 years later.
The presentation of the award came about through a network of friends and communications that maybe only a veteran could fully appreciate. The Averys are members of Hudson VFW Post 1314 and have traveled to the Washington, D.C., World War II monument on the Patriot Flights that regularly bring veterans to see the monuments on the National Mall. He and his wife, Dorothy, have also been to Normandy several times since the war for anniversaries of the battle, and each time he has found it to be a very emotional experience.
Through family friend Lois Dysard the couple learned of an annual re-enactment event held in August on the beaches of Lake Erie in Conneaut, OH, known as D-Day Ohio. In August 2016, she drove them to the event which included displays of operational landing boats, tanks, planes and weapons as well as people in uniforms of that era. It was there that they met the event’s veteran liaison, Eric Montgomery.
When Mr. Avery told him a bit of his story, Mr. Montgomery reportedly expressed surprise that Mr. Avery had not already received the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest recognition. It is usually reserved for French nationals but is awarded to foreign citizens who have served France in some capacity. The award was established in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte with five degrees; Knight, or “Chevalier,” Officer, Commander and Grand Cross.
Ms. Dysard helped them with the application. “Montgomery sent me the application paperwork” for the degree of Knight, she said. Ralph was required to write a letter describing his involvement in the battle, which he did. Then Mr. Montgomery forwarded the application to the French consulate. They were informed that it could take 8-18 months. He submitted the paperwork in September of 2016, and received notification this June, just as they were leaving for another visit to Normandy for an anniversary of the battle.
Deciding that he would like to receive the award at a ceremony during the annual D-Day event in Ohio, since Eric Montgomery had been instrumental in making the contacts, Ralph Avery was one of three D-Day veterans presented with the Legion of Honor medal by the French consulate at the Conneaut D-Day Ohio event August 19, 2017.
“It’s a beautiful medal,” said Ralph, who also has two Bronze Stars. “I think it’s one of the nicest looking medals I’ve gotten.”
Ralph will be 93 on September 28. “There’s not many of us left,” he said.
Prompting a memory Ms. Dysard asked, “You pulled somebody out of the water didn’t you, Ralph?”
“Oh, I pulled a couple guys out of the water,” he said. “Usually if I hear something or see something that reminds me of the time.”
When he was at the Ohio re-enactment participants fired a German 88mm artillery piece and Ralph identified it by the sound. “I knew immediately, and that was 70-some years ago.”
“I’d like to get this out to see of somebody else was there and reading this would help them– somebody in the first or the second wave,” he said. “Gee, I can’t be the only one!”