French honor ex-Urbana superintendent on D-Day
URBANA – Kermit and Ann Harden really didn't choose their wedding day in 1959 because it was the anniversary of the 1944 D-Day invasion of France.
But given Harden's World War II military service, it's fitting that his marriage milestone be shared with an event that changed the course of history.
On Saturday, as scores of family and friends, including about a dozen veterans, celebrated the Hardens' 50 years of marriage at a party in Urbana, the 84-year-old Harden was presented the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal from the French government.
Filling in for the French consul, Urbana resident and retired Navy Cmdr. Joe Rank read from a letter that Harden received in April from Jean-Baptiste Main de Boissiere of the French Consulate in Chicago.
"More than 60 years ago, you gave your youth to France and the French people. Many of your fellow soldiers did not return, but they remain in our hearts. Thanks to the courage of these soldiers, to our American friends and allies, France has been living in peace for the past six decades. They saved us and we will never forget. I want you to know that for us, the French People, they are heroes. Gratitude and remembrance are forever in our souls. You, Mr. Harden, are among these heroes," Main de Boissiere wrote.
"I'm happy," Harden said simply, after having been pinned with the weighty insignia and presented a framed certificate signed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
According to Wikipedia, the Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon in 1802 to recognize "excellent civil or military conduct delivered" to France and has been bestowed on about 10,000 Americans, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, former President Dwight Eisenhower, Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg.
"It's nice to have it. I was really surprised, particularly at this late date," said the retired Urbana schools superintendent, who has to be prodded a bit to talk of his military contributions.
The Legion of Honor is the latest in a string of honors for the veteran who interrupted his education at the University of Illinois to enlist in the Army in 1942 at 18. He was also awarded the Purple Heart, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Prisoner of War medal, the European, African, Middle Eastern and American Theatre medals, and the Good Conduct medal, just to name a few.
After being called up in March 1943, Harden was in school stateside for a year before being sent to Europe in August 1944.
He and his comrades in the 301st Battalion of the 94th Infantry Division walked across Omaha Beach just two months after the bloody D-Day invasion.
Not long after being on French soil, Harden discovered a mine in a hedgerow. As he and about seven others in his patrol were trying to figure out how to defuse it, a fellow soldier sneezed or coughed, scaring a cat, which then tripped the mine.
"The good thing about that is it was a little hand grenade that wasn't too powerful. It made a lot of noise. Three of us were hit by the shrapnel," he said of the experience for which he received the Purple Heart. Hit in the right cheek, he doesn't even have a scar.
Not long after that, in October 1944, Harden was among a group taken prisoner and held in an old fort on an island in the Atlantic Ocean for 45 days. The diminutive Harden weighed 152 pounds when he stepped on European soil. He lost about 50 pounds in those seven weeks.
Sent back to the fray following his release in a prisoner exchange, he participated in the Battle of the Bulge in northern France in December 1944, where he saw Gen. George Patton a couple of times.
"We were stranded out on a hill in subzero weather. I was three days in a foxhole. We couldn't get out," he said. "If we tried to leave, we had to go through an open field, and they'd start shooting at us.
"We were finally, one night, just pulled back. When I got back and got warm, my feet swelled and cracked open. I was frozen from the waist down and was in the hospital 30 days."
There were other battles, other acts of heroism by Harden, who was released from the service in December 1945.
An educator who served as Urbana District 116 superintendent from 1974 to 1982, Harden taught in several Illinois school districts prior to landing in Urbana. He even taught at the American School of Paris in the mid-1950s.
Harden said he's been back to France six or seven times since the war and has visited the old fort where he experienced his forced weight loss. His last trip to France was five years ago, on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and his 45th wedding anniversary.