As an Army Aircorps top turret gunner on a B-17, Fred Rosenkoff flew on combat missions over Europe during World War II and spent his first weeks of freedom from a prison war camp in France. Army nurse Mildred Weintraub Kagan tended to wounded soldiers in a French hospital. And Arthur Gallob served during the Battle of the Bulge and lost his best friend in the Invasion of Normandy.
They all served their country during WWII. They all helped France. And now, in a race against the decades, they are all being honored with a French Legion of Honor award. One veteran, Isy Brooks, received his award two days before his 100th birthday.
In 2004, French President Jacques Chirac launched a campaign to honor all surviving American veterans who played a role in helping liberate France from German occupation during the war. It is the country’s highest civil and military medal.
“Every one of these veterans has an individual story, an individual memory. Every one of them helped France in some way,” the Consul General of France in Miami, Philippe Létrilliart said on Friday after five Florida veterans received the award aboard the French vessel, The Monge, at the Port of Miami. “We want people to remember the important role they played in our common history. This is a way of showing our gratitude.”
It’s a daunting mission with an urgent deadline: More than 70 years after D-Day, there are about 1.5 million World War II veterans left, all in their late 80s and 90s. The US Department of Veterans Affairs reports the group is dying at an estimated rate of more than 400 a day and there are about 95,000 living in Florida, home to one of the largest veteran populations.
So far, nearly 1,400 veterans in South Florida have received the medals in ceremonies around the state — with generous help from Delray Beach WWII Navy veteran Tom Kaiser. At 86, driven, in part, by the death of his older brother inside a submarine in 1944, Kaiser’s world is a buzz of veteran activities, including helping Létrilliart’s office identify those aging veterans who qualify for the award. He has helped hundredsof veterans receive their honors. For his work, Kaiser was added to the Congressional Record last year by U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings of Florida.
“We have to hurry,” said Kaiser, who also founded the Veterans Memorial Park in Boynton Beach. “We want every one of these veterans to be able to enjoy the medal they earned and then be able to share it with their children and grandchildren.”
The French Legion of Honor was originally established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. American recipients include Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The mention of war draws a mix of pride and tears from Arthur Gallob, who turned 94 in January. From his Tamarac home, Gallop recalled his journey from Brooklyn to the Battle of the Bulge in France and Belgium. He had enlisted at the beginning of the war and worked in the Signal Corps. He still remembers the day fellow GIs were searching for General George S. Patton’s pet dog, Willie, who had gotten lost but was eventually found. Most of all, he remembers the death of his childhood friend in 1944.
“I lost my best, best buddy in the war,” he said.
Fred Rosenkoff joined the Army in 1942. At the time, he was an 18-year-old college student studying textile engineering.
“My job when we were flying and got up in the air was to pull the pins in the bombs to keep them from blowing up,’’ said Rosenkoff, who now lives with his family in North Miami Beach.
Rosenkoff’s aircraft was shot down over Germany on his fifth mission in January of 1944. He spent 18 months in a prisoner-of-war camp where he remembers the bitter cold, being fed three potatoes a day and bread made with sawdust. Rosenkoff marched out of the camp on his 21st birthday and went to Camp Lucky Strike in Le Havre, France, where his release was processed. Thirteen days after he returned to the United States, he married his high school sweetheart, the late Irene Rosenkoff.
Seven decades after the war ended, Rosenkoff was awarded the French medal at a Veterans’ Day ceremony at the University of Miami in November.
“I don’t really think of myself as a hero. I did what I was supposed to do,” said Rosenkoff, 91, who served as a technical sergeant in the 305th Bombardment. “I was surprised and pleased to get the award.”
On Friday, Tony Salce was honored along with four other veterans. The U.S. Coast Guard veteran was on the USS Samuel Chase that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“One of my strongest memories was seeing all the bodies that were brought back to the ship so they would get a good burial,” said Salce, 93, who lives in Fort Lauderdale. “It was heartbreaking.”
In December, Mildred Weintraub Kagan, 94, was among the veterans — the only woman — who stood in the Boynton Beach Veterans park on a Tuesday to receive her medal.
As a young nurse in New York, she wanted to serve in the military, hailing from a family that valued public service. During World I, her mother had been volunteer during the influenza epidemic.
“We lived near Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn and my mother wrote letters to the soldiers’ families for them, so she had a giving type of background,” she said. “I am very patriotic.’’
Kagan served at the 178th General Hospital in Reims, France, where she help to treat servicemen wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, the German campaign launched on Dec. 16, 1944, through Belgium, France and Luxembourg.
“It was my duty to that see that each patient was taken care of properly. We had German and Russian patients and they were to be treated as the Americans were in case our men were in hospitals of theirs. I remember the soldiers coming in with frozen feet and fractured arms and legs,” she said. “I look back at now and I am proud of my time in France. I was serving my country and I was helping soldiers.”
French Legion of Honor award
American veterans who served during World War II and who fought on French territory qualify to be decorated as Knights of the Legion of Honor. Veterans must have fought in one of the four main campaigns of the Liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or Northern France. For more information, visit www.consulfrance-miami.org or call WWII veteran Tom Kaiser at 561-276-1796.