Nathan Kline wrapped a white monogrammed scarf around his neck and placed a bulletproof prayer book in his left shirt pocket. He'd followed the same routine for all of his previous bombing runs over Europe, but the teenager from Pennsylvania, knew there was nothing routine about this mission.
Nothing routine at all about this day, June 6, 1944 — D-Day.
More excited than nervous, Kline squeezed his small frame into the cramped Plexiglas nose of a B-26 Marauder and took off from an English base, joining thousands of his airborne mates over the English Channel. His destination: Normandy, France, where 50,000 German troops awaited the Allied invasion.
Now 84, Kline still has the scarf, the prayer book, and many other artifacts and honors from his role in the epic battle that turned the tide of World War II. In a few days, he'll add one more award to his already crowded wall: the French Legion of Honor medal.
Fifty Americans, 15 Canadians and 10 British veterans of World War II will receive France's highest award during a Friday ceremony in Paris, then head to Normandy on Saturday to mark the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings. President Barack Obama will attend Saturday's ceremony with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, along with Britain's Prince Charles.
"We've had our ups and downs with the French since the war, but that's one thing that they recognize, what we did, the Americans did, to help them be free again, be liberated," said Kline, an Air Force bombardier-navigator who flew 65 missions during the war. "They've always respected us for that."
Joining Kline in France will be J.J. Witmeyer Jr., who led an Army platoon that took out two German pillboxes.
Flashbacks of D-Day invasion
"It was just like opening the gates of hell," said Witmeyer, 89, of New Orleans, a docent at the National World War II Museum. "You don't know what's on the other side, you don't know whether you're going to meet German tanks or artillery shells (that) will take your friend's head off."
About 160,000 Allied troops — primarily American, British and Canadian — stormed the beaches of occupied France on D-Day, opening up a second European front and setting the stage for Nazi Germany's defeat. More than 9,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded in what is regarded as history's greatest amphibious assault.
As Witmeyer fought his way through the German defenses, Kline was 4,000 feet overhead, in a plane called "Luckey Lady." After dropping his payload of eight 500-pound bombs on a German rail yard, Kline — who sat in front of the pilot and co-pilot, in the most unprotected part of the plane — turned his attention to a navigational map. Plotting the bomber's return to base, he tried to ignore the heavy anti-aircraft fire all around him.
But as the B-26 headed back over the coast, a piece of flak came screaming into the plane's nose. The projectile shredded Kline's map, whizzed between his legs, and exited out the top — yet another narrow miss for the bombardier-navigator, who months later, would be shot down twice in a week during the Battle of the Bulge.
"I was very angry — I wasn't scared — I was angry because they had ripped up my darned maps," said Kline, whose chestful of medals include the Distinguished Flying Cross.
'My heart is heavy, heavy'
Speaking in a small, cluttered study he calls his "war room," Kline chokes up when he talks about the Allied troops who died on D-Day and throughout the war. He knows he'll struggle with his emotions at Saturday's ceremony, to be held at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.
The 75 honorees appear to represent the largest single group of foreign soldiers to be inducted into the Legion of Honor since a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004. The French say this year's ceremony is intended primarily as a U.S.-French event, rather than a full-blown remembrance of the Allied effort like those held on the 50th and 60th anniversaries. Since Napoleon created the order in 1802, thousands of foreign soldiers have been admitted to its ranks.
France identifies eligible World War II veterans — those who participated in one of the four major Allied campaigns in France — with the help of U.S. veterans groups and through media reports.
Like Kline, a retired entrepreneur who remains active in civic and military groups, Witmeyer said his fallen mates are just as deserving of the honor as he is.
"My heart is heavy, heavy, because I think of the French soldiers and the American soldiers who fought together on those beaches ... who fought together and died together."