France salutes Americans who served

Published Jun 17, 2013 at 7:34 am (Updated Jun 17, 2013 at 12:01 pm)

Conditions were bleak as the U.S. and Allied forces landed on France’s coast during World War II. The military fought to liberate a country most men knew little about.

“We will always remember,” said Olivier Serot Almeras, Consul general of France. “I am here today to praise these men for their courage,” Almeras continued as he recognized 19 U.S. veterans who had served.

These former combatants who defended France during WWII were presented with a “Chevalier” of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award for national service. This year on D-Day, June 6, the 69th anniversary of the 1944 Allied invasion of France’s Normandy coast, was marked in ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.

As a sign of France’s gratitude, local McMurray resident and former infantryman George Kokiko received an invitation for his personal contribution to the liberation of France during World War II.

Expressing humility, George said he did not feel like a hero and believes that those who didn’t return home are the real heroes. The ultimate sacrifice of 60,000 U.S. soldiers was a huge price to pay.

As a young man living in Uniontown, George, now 89, was drafted at 19 and soon found himself in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and Georgia’s Camp Gordon (now known as Fort Gordon). Following military graduation, George joined other infantrymen who landed on Utah Beach in France in September 1944. He became a machine gunner and squad leader of the light weapons section of his platoon, 26th “Yankee” Division, 328th Inf. Reg., 1st Batt., Co. C., attached to General Patton’s third Army. After helping to drive the Germans back to their border and suffering many casualties, his unit was moved into the Battle of the Bulge during the worst winter in European history. Wounded and hospitalized in England, George later rejoined his unit to fight in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Originally assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), George headed to the front lines since the Army canceled the educational program needing soldiers in Europe.

When asked how long he served in the U.S. Army, George quickly replied, “two years, nine months, 16 days and four hours.”

After returning to the states, George resumed his ASTP studies at Boston College, getting his master’s degree in social work from Boston University. He met his wife, Liz, while both held assignments in the juvenile court in D.C. George went on to work for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and Catholic Charities under Bishop John Wright. George and Liz will be married 60 years in November.

The Kokikos’ son, Chris, and daughter, June, along with their grandchildren and their friends, Jean and Bruce Forry, traveled to D.C. for the Legion of Honor ceremony. George and Liz were eager to tell how gracious and appreciative the Frenchmen were during the wonderful reception planned for the veterans and their families, complete with French champagne and delectable French pastries.

Created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Legion of Honor recognizes men and women who have served France in exceptional capacities in military or civil affairs. It is the highest distinction that can be conferred upon a person by the French government, whether that person is of French or foreign citizenship.

Although not many U.S. service men and women from WWII remain, the French government continues to make every effort to reach all the military who served in France. It’s gratifying to see that the bravery and sacrifice has not been forgotten.

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