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WWII vet to receive French Legion of Honor

Hal Lobree was an 18-year-old radio operator with the U.S. Army’s 106th Infantry Division, less than three weeks into his deployment to war-ravaged Europe, when Adolf Hitler launched a surprise blitzkrieg that would later be known as the Battle of the Bulge.

From his post in a farmhouse cellar in the town of St. Vith, Belgium, Lobree frantically connected calls from the front to the various commanding officers. Each was more desperate, as the Germans encircled and cut off U.S. forces.

“They’re on top of us!”

“We’re outmanned!”

“I can see them coming!”

As the radio calls ceased and casualties began to mount — it turned into the bloodiest battle U.S. forces experienced during World War II, with 19,000 American dead — Lobree and three others from his regimen fell back into the woods. They hid there until they were rescued by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer truck.

Lobree would spend the rest of the war with another Army outfit, the 28th Infantry Division, attached to Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, as it chased the Germans through northern France and into eastern Germany. Lobree never again saw any of the 106th Infantry guys who had trained with him in Indiana’s Camp Atterbury and then fought in the Ardennes, the dense forest and mountain region that extends through Belgium, Luxembourg and France.

“What saved my life was one thing – I was a switchboard operator,” he recalls with a rueful shake of the head.

Now, almost seven decades after those frigid, snowy December days in 1944, Lobree will be presented with the French Legion of Honor on Wednesday at a ceremony in Surfside, along with a handful of other South Florida World War II veterans. It’s not the only honor the 1943 graduate of Miami Beach High has received for his service during the war. He was also awarded the Bronze Star for Meritorious Achievement in Ground Operations Against the Enemy in 1948.

In what Lobree calls “a happy coincidence,” one of his sons, Shawn Lobree, a senior captain with the U.S. Navy, will receive an honor of his own. Within hours of the French Legion ceremony, on the deck of the U.S.S Peleliu somewhere in the Arabian Sea, the younger Lobree will be installed as Commodore of the Third Amphibious Squadron of the U.S. Navy, in charge of a fleet of ships.

“As that 18-year-old in the army 69 years ago, I would’ve never figured on something like this happening.”

The elder Lobree says he’s “very pleased, very proud” of his son’s 26-year Naval career. But he’s not surprised. Shawn, like his older brother H.Baird and his twin brother Shawl, were champion sailors in their youth, winning multiple Florida state titles and national championships.

Lobree loves talking about his children’s feats and only reluctantly talks about his own. The French Legion award prompted him to dig out photos and other memorabilia.

“See that?” he says, pointing to a black scrapbook. “It was gathering dust until all this happened.” In it are photos, magazine and newspaper clippings, calendars and ticket stubs that chronicle a long, eventful life.

After the war, Lobree attended the University of Texas on the G.I. bill and graduated to a job in the oil industry as a petroleum geologist in Indiana. There he married and had four children before moving back to his hometown 42 years ago.

Two of those children remain in Miami — daughter Fleur, a Miami-Dade County Court judge, and son H. Baird, a professional management and information technology consultant — and will attend the Dec. 19 ceremony. In February, Fleur Lobree will be elevated to the Eleventh Judicial Circuit by Gov. Rick Scott.

Jeannine, his wife of 51 years, died in July. “She would’ve loved seeing all this,” he says.

And though he appreciates the war honors, he also admits that dredging up the memories can be painful. “War changes you,” he says. “You’re never the same again.”