American Legion National Commander Vincent J. “Jim” Troiola paid homage, in ceremonies leading up to the 79th D-Day anniversary, to combat officers who led U.S. troops in the World War II liberation of Normandy, France. He did so in the company of multiple U.S. officers leading America’s warriors today, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
Among the World War II leaders remembered prominently during ceremonies was Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., founding leader of The American Legion, who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions while coming ashore in the first wave at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944.
A “Statue of Liberation” – first unveiled in a ceremony last year by then-National Commander Paul E. Dillard – was formally dedicated June 5, with completed plaques telling the story of the oldest officer to storm the beaches and break through Nazi defenses, first step in an 11-month march to victory in Europe in May 1945. Roosevelt Jr. died from a heart attack five weeks after the Normandy landings and was initially laid to rest in a temporary cemetery in Ste. Mere-Eglise, first town liberated by the Allies on D-Day. Troiola visited the grave of Roosevelt Jr. at the Normandy American Cemetery and also paid his respects in a June 4 speech near La Fiere Bridge.
“His leadership style was effective, and it was unorthodox,” Troiola told a crowd of active-duty troops, veterans, political leaders from the United States and France and spectators in the dedication ceremony. “When he came ashore at Utah Beach in the first wave on June 6, 1944, he was armed only with a sidearm and that cane of his. And he never drew the pistol. He just kept running across the beach, through enemy fire, delivering his men to safety, practically daring the Germans to gun him down. He was 56 years old.”
Troiola noted that the 26th U.S. president’s eldest son had been shot and gassed in World War I – before he set in motion plans to form The American Legion in 1919 – and that he considered it not just a duty or responsibility, but a privilege, to serve his country in times of war.
“He was just as willing in World War II, as he had been in World War I, to die for the causes he believed in – justice, freedom, democracy. It is no coincidence that these words are written into the Preamble of The American Legion’s Constitution … These causes have guided America’s largest organization of military veterans for over a century. In this day and age, it is both comforting – and rare – to know that certain things are timeless. That is why this Statue of Liberation is so important. That is why future generations must read these panels and learn from them.”
The second Statue of Liberation – to honor Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower – is scheduled for dedication in 2024, for the 80th anniversary of the liberation. The American Legion is the lead supporter of the Statues of Liberation project, along with Operation Democracy of Locust Valley, N.Y., Amis des Veterans Americains (AVA) of Normandy and the City of Ste. Mere-Eglise. Like the Roosevelt Jr. statue – sculpted by internationally acclaimed artist Pablo Eduardo of Gloucester, Mass. – the Eisenhower statue will contain metals from shell casings, mortars and other materiel recovered from the Normandy battlefields.
The American Legion national commander walked in the paths of heroes at Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc and Utah Beach during his trip. At the Lone Sailor Memorial, dedicated in 2022 in a project spearheaded by American Legion Department of France member Valerie Prehoda, Troiola placed a wreath and rendered a salute for those from his branch of service who made the ultimate sacrifice in Normandy.
Prior to his remarks at La Fiere Bridge, Troiola met with more than 30 World War II veterans in attendance for a parachute jump there. Among them was Louisiana Legionnaire Norris Morvant, who was taken by all the gratitude shown by the French. “This is wonderful,” he said. “I’m not only here for myself. I’m here for the people who didn’t come back.”
Another was 101-year-old Navy veteran Martin Vedelet of Fairfield, Ala., who has been an American Legion member since 1946. “This is great,” he said of the appreciation shown to him and his fellow veterans. “You see people from all walks of life in the service. I get a kick out of when one of them from the Army, Air Force or Marines tells me, ‘We thank you for helping us win the war.’”
He explained that growing up in the Great Depression prepared him and many of his fellow veterans for the challenges they would face in World War II. “We had to do without a lot of things, and it educated us on the importance of loving other people and depending on them, and letting them depend on you. That’s the reason they call us the ‘Greatest Generation.’”
Bartlett, Ill., Legionnaire Jack Kinyon, 100, who flew across nearly every hemisphere during his World War II service with the 503rd Army Air Corps, expressed gratitude to the Normandy citizens who treat U.S. veterans with such respect. “It feels good to be here in France,” he said, between signing autographs. “They are so gracious to us, kind to us, and it’s really a pleasure.”
“Normandy is a very special place,” Gen. Milley told attendees of the Statue of Liberation ceremony. “The echoes of D-Day continue to reverberate through our generations. Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, Sword. All-Americans, Screaming Eagles, Big Red One, 29th Division, British Airborne. Eisenhower, Gavin, Mongtomery and, of course, Roosevelt Jr. These are not mere names. They are hallowed symbols of courage and resilience and sacrifice. They represent the countless brave souls who faced the fury of war on these beaches.”
Each of those officers, he explained, “represents the epitome of the servant leader. (Roosevelt Jr.) sought no comfort, despite his upbringing. He could have avoided combat, but he didn’t. He fought in World War I and World War II. Here, he was denied twice, and on his third request, he was finally allowed to accompany his troops ashore. He was a soldier’s solder. He landed a mile off course, but he opted to fight where he landed as his famous quote is, ‘We’ll start the war from right here.’
“He rallied those around him and steadied them when otherwise they would have been terrified by the sound of war. He was a soldier’s soldier. Today, we pay tribute to him, but not just him – all those who landed on these beaches and all those who fought in World War II because they fought for a much greater cause. They fought side by side. And they died side by side. They were united by a common purpose – the unyielding belief in the values of freedom and liberty. The legacy of this day, the true meaning of Normandy, is in the hearts of all those who understand the magnitude and bravery and live with the liberty that was granted to all of us. It reminds us that the freedoms we enjoy today were paid for in the blood of those on these beaches. May their names be forever etched in our memory … What has been paid for in blood must never be lost.”