Arcola native to receive France's highest honor
ARCOLA – Steaming toward the Omaha beachhead on D-Day, Coxswain Joe Ernst and his crewmates blew out the bottom of their gasoline tanker with explosives 1,000 feet from shore.
In the early hours of June 6, 1944, the tanker would provide a breakwater to protect U.S. infantry in Normandy, as well as a deck, inches above the water, from which to shoot at German planes.
Unfortunately for Ernst and his crewmen, the Germans shot back too – for four days – from the shore, from the cliffs and from the air. For four days, the young men went almost entirely without food and water.
And next week, Ernst, 85, will receive The Legion of Honor medal, the highest distinction that France bestows upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for their nation. Created by Napoleon in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor is signed by the president of France.
The French consul general in Chicago, Jean-Baptiste de Boissiere, and Dan Grant, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, will present 11 Midwestern heroes of World War II with the honor Tuesday at the Thompson Center in Chicago.
Ernst is the only one of the 11 honorees from the Champaign area.
"Thanks to their courage, to our American friends and allies, France has been living in peace for the past six decades. We shall never forget," de Boissiere said in a press release.
Ernst, an Arcola native, used to own a garage in his hometown.
At 18, in a patriotic and optimistic flourish, he volunteered to fight the enemies who bombed Pearl Harbor and blitzkrieged Europe.
"I just turned 18, and I thought it was going to be over in a short time, maybe a year. Instead, it was almost four years," he said.
Ernst chose the Navy, and the Navy chose him for a difficult assignment: carrying troops and materials across the North Atlantic to America's allies. He eventually served on five different ships.
"The first one, they took out of service right away, it was so old. We made it to Wales and back, and they junked it," Ernst said.
His next ship was one he spent the longest time on, the troop ship USS Audacious.
"We stayed on the Audacious two years, which is a long time in the North Atlantic. Half the guys I went to boot camp with died in six months after going to sea, I found out later. We all went on different ships, but we all had U-boats and German planes to deal with," he said.
The U-boats, which hunted convoys in their "wolf pack" groups, were a dangerous and unseen enemy. Often the first notice of them was a torpedo heading for the bow, he said.
Sometimes, the Audacious had two or three destroyers to protect her, he said.
For D-day, Ernst was on the gas tanker.
"It's kind of like sinking your own home. It was a suicide mission," he recalls. "You don't have much time to think about it."
There were 18 crewmen and one officer.
"The deck was just barely above water, when tide was out. We went to our guns. You could see the Germans real easy, and they could see us. We shot at aircraft," Ernst said.
At one point, the Navy sent them a boat with K-rations.
Nobody on the tanker died in the action, but upon return to the Brooklyn Naval Yard, three crew members were treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, then called "shellshock" or "battle fatigue."
For his part, Ernst used his leave to marry his Arcola sweetheart, Jane, who died four years ago. They have a daughter, Sue Hansen, who lives in Champaign.
When the war in Europe ended, the Navy didn't let up on Ernst. He was sent to Okinawa.
"We were waiting for the invasion of Japan when they dropped the atom bomb. We knew right way it was over; I was never was so happy in my life," he said.
A friend recommended Ernst for the Legion of Honor. It wasn't something he liked to talk about.
"You blot everything out and start all over again," he said. "I could never talk about D-Day."
A doctor helped him write an essay on it, which took four or five weeks.
"Finally, it's something I can talk about," Ernst said.
Ernst also received the Combat Action Ribbon, European, African, Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with one bronze star, a Navy Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, the Navy Discharge Button and the Honorable Service Lapel Pin.