An 8-year-old boy cheered, along with the crowd that filled the streets of Montereau, France, in 1944, when American soldiers traveled through, marking the country’s liberation at the end of World War II.
The son of that 8-year-old boy was in Grand Forks on Tuesday to present France’s highest distinction, the Legion of Honor, to Art Grabowski, a U.S. soldier who was in one of the units that passed by on those streets so long ago.
“It is possible my dad saw you,” Guillaume LaCroix, consul general of France in Chicago, told Grabowski, 105, in a private ceremony at the North Dakota Museum of Art.
“He remembered the Americans being big and tall, and handing out candy and cigarettes,” LaCroix said.
Grabowski, who received the French Legion of Honor medal from LaCroix during a ceremony attended by about 20 family members and friends, was honored for his role as an American soldier in the liberation of France at the end of WWII.
The Legion of Honor is bestowed on those “who have achieved remarkable deeds for France,” according to a news release from the consul general’s office.
Grabowski has been named Knight of the National Order of the French Legion of Honor by a decree signed by the president of France, Emmanuel Macron. Founded in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the honor recognizes eminent service to the French Republic.
Last month, the world commemorated the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy, which led to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich.
At Tuesday’s ceremony, retired Brigadier General Al Palmer, who served as chief of staff of the North Dakota Air National Guard, reminded the audience of the critical role France has played in the founding of this nation.
“In the Revolutionary War, it was the French who came to our aid,” Palmer said.
LaCroix also emphasized that long-standing friendship, noting the “special relations, the special alliance between the U.S. and France, and the continued brotherhood between the French people and your people. We take a lot of pride in this alliance.”
The United States military ended “the tyranny and foreign occupation” France endured during WWII and “restored our dignity as a free, democratic nation and our independence.
“We will never be able to repay the debt we owe to the Greatest Generation,” LaCroix said. “It is our honor to be here and present this honor.”
The French people will never forget that Americans “risked everything for freedom of our country; you saved my country, our independence. Our flag is here because of your country.”
To Grabowski, he said: “It is an honor and personal privilege to get to know you. It seems you only have good memories of France. I’m sure you have bad memories of France as well, but it seems you want to keep the good memories.”
“For President Macron, for the French people, for me and my children, I want to say, ‘Merci beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup’ for your service.”
Messages from the offices of Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., were read by representatives of the congressmen.
Because of Grabowski’s health requirements, his daughter, Mary Stammen, of Grand Forks, asked the Herald not to interview him.
Grabowski, who was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, trained stateside before serving in Iceland, France, Germany and Czechoslovakia. As a member of the Second Infantry Regiment, Fifth Infantry Division, he participated in five major battles in Normandy, northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and Central Europe.
In July 1944, Grabowski and his fellow soldiers landed on Utah Beach. On the trip over from Ireland to France, the soldiers grew more quiet.
“On the boat, there was a lot of silence,” Talon Stammen, Grabowski’s grandson, read from one of his grandfather’s letters during the ceremony. “The men were quiet as they thought of what was before us.”
Grabowski was a rifleman whose duties included delivering food as well as ammunition, medical supplies and information to the front lines.
“Traveling was the risky part,” Stammen read. “You never knew when you were in someone’s sights.”
At the conclusion of the war, Grabowski was honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant Technician Fourth Grade.
For his service in Europe, Grabowski has received the Bronze Star Medal, the Combat Infantry Badge, the European African Middle Eastern Theatre Ribbon with One Silver Star, seven Overseas Service Bars, the Good Conduct Medal with Clasp, the American Defense Service Ribbon and one service stripe.
Like so many military veterans who served during times of major conflict, Grabowski kept many memories of the war to himself, said Mary Stammen.
“This man did not talk about the war,” she said. “He only had hilarious, funny stories to tell.”
When he was told of the honor he was to receive Tuesday, Stammen said" “He put his head down and said, ‘All of us deserve that medal for what we went through and what we saw.’
“But that’s my dad,” she said. “He always makes good things out of bad things.”
At Tuesday’s ceremony, her son, Talon Stammen, talked about the book he wrote about his grandfather as part of his honors thesis at UND. “A Grandfather’s Workbench” is a collection of stories he heard as the two worked side-by-side for more than 20 years, along with other research.
“Ever since I was very young, I’ve enjoyed listening to his stories,” Stammen said. “Through those stories, I’ve come to appreciate what he’s done. And now, this award, given three-quarters of a century later, speaks to the significance of that.
“I know what he did and the sacrifices he made,” he said. “He gave up his business -- it was gone when he came back -- and he was away from his family for almost four-and-a-half years.”
Grabowski was among the first to be drafted into military service in March 1941, before the United States officially entered the war, and he was among the last to return home, Stammen said.
“He and countless others responded so unselfishly to the call for freedom," he said.
Some of his grandfather’s stories about the war were “difficult to hear, but his humor helped him through the hard times,” he said. “His humor is his most defining personality trait.”
Grabowski is “generally positive,” he said. “He’s an artist, so he’s always kind of looking at beauty and good things.”
After the award ceremony, Palmer, who served as master of ceremonies at the event, said of Grabowski: “What an honor to receive the equivalent of the Medal of Honor from the French government. It’s awesome.”
The fact that Grabowski survived the war is extraordinary, Palmer said.
“I’m so glad he’s still with us, because so many are not,” he said. “You think about, how many times can you go into combat before your luck runs out?”
At war’s end, Grabowski “came back and started his life again,” Talon Stammen said. “He’s extremely fortunate, considering what his outfit went through. He survived.”
Like many other veterans, Grabowski “didn’t regale me with tales of heroism,” Talon said. “The war was something to be forgotten. Today is an example of it not being forgotten.”