JENSEN BEACH — Richard “Dick” Lewis, a 98-year-old World War II veteran who contributed to the liberation of France from Nazi occupation, on Wednesday received France’s highest honor in an intimate ceremony surrounded by family, community members, law enforcement and public officials.
The Knight in the Legion of Honor, or , was presented to Lewis by Raphaël Trapp, consul general of France in Miami, at Indian RiverSide Park. Trapp played on a speaker the U.S. and French national anthems, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise.” Lewis sang “The Star Spangled Banner” while attendees held their hands over their hearts and intermittently joinedin.
The prestigious recognition, founded in 1802 by Napoléon Bonaparte, rewards military and civil service. Thomas Edison, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg are among famous Americans who have received the honor.
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“It’s a privilege for me to be here to express the gratitude of my country,” Trapp said during the ceremony. “I am deeply honored to fulfill one of my utmost important duties: to pay tribute to a war hero.”
Trapp pinned the star-shaped medal — engraved in green, white, gold and blue, which hung by a bright red ribbon — to Lewis’ navy blue jacket.
“If they ever ask me to do it again, I would certainly, absolutely say yes,” Lewis, a Jensen Beach resident and former combat medic, said of his service.
Lewis’ grandson Gary Ferreri, of Delray Beach, was among family members joining in celebration of the honor on Wednesday. The pride Lewis takes as a veteran extends to the whole family, Ferreri said.
“At 98 years old, he’s a national treasure, really,” Ferreri said.
Lewis reflects on his service
Lewis, a Massachusetts native, was drafted after high school and joined the Army’s 168th Combat Engineers Battalion in 1943 after basic training at at Camp Carson, Colorado. His unit was scheduled to be part of the D-Day assault on Normandy, France, June 6, 1944, but was delayed after a soldier became ill and his unit was quarantined.
Lewis landed 23 days later on Utah Beach and fought through Normandy and Belgium. The Battle of Normandy lasted until Aug. 30, 1944. He was captured in December, and became a prisoner of war, sent to Stalag XII-A, one of Germany’s largest prisoner-of-war camps, in a forced march. He was liberated on April 6, 1945, suffering from malnutrition, lice and frozen feet.
Now, 78 years later, Lewis says he’s ironically allergic to the medicine that saved his feet: penicillin.
“It saved my feet, but now it could kill me,” Lewis said with a chuckle.
His most vivid memory of his service is when he returned to the United States and had a chance meeting with a man he treated on the battlefield and had assumed was assumed dead,
The soldier was shot in front of him during a battle and was bleeding from the chest. Lewis stopped the blood flow as best he could before the soldier was evacuated to an infirmary, Lewis said.
“I didn’t think he had lived … I wasn’t sure I got the bandages tight,” Lewis said. “About a year after the war was over, I was walking down the streets of Boston with my sister. He came over with his buddy and said, ‘Here’s the man who saved my life.’
“I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe it was him,” Lewis added.