LA PORTE, Texas – On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, 36 American veterans received an official, and distinctive, thank you from the government of France in a ceremony held on the bow of the Battleship Texas in La Porte.
The veterans, from all branches of the U.S. military, received the French Legion of Honour medal, the highest French decoration. Sujiro Seam, the Consul General of France in Houston, presented the medals along with a second medallion – a commemorative gift containing grains of sand from Normandy Beach.
Some of the veterans, like John Tschirhart, 94, of San Antonio, arrived in their original military uniforms. Jimmy Holmes of Dallas was an 18-year-old in basic training at Fort Hood during the D-Day invasion and was quickly rushed into battle for the remainder of the war.
“I can’t imagine they’re giving us the highest honor. But then on the other hand the saving of their nation. I think if they saved America I’d want to do the same thing for them,” said Holmes.
Among the 36 veterans only one actually served on the Battleship Texas. Howard Mills helped load the Texas’ 14-inch guns as it rained down shells on Omaha Beach during the invasion. He also spent time manning the 20mm anti-aircraft guns. On Friday when he received his Legion of Honour medal he broke down and cried.
“Precious memories,” he said recounting the number of friends he lost in the war. “It means a whole lot. A whole lot to me,” he said of the honor from France. “Thinking back over it, there’s a lot of boys that’s gone.”
But because the Battleship Texas still lives, moored as a state historic site in La Porte, the French government chose it as a fitting location to honor the veterans on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. It may have meant the most to Mills. The event also took place on his 89th birthday.
”I count it as a blessing,” he said of the Texas. “As long as I had this ship under me, I had a home.”
As the KHOU 11 News crew left the ceremony on board the Texas, they noticed that the starboard 20mm gun turret that Mills once called home is now home to a nesting dove. She refused to budge from her nest even as hundreds filed by. A message perhaps on a retired U.S. military icon as one nation thanks its American liberators for the 70-year-old gift of peace.