July 11, 2014

Rock Hill World War II veteran receives French medal

There were no snapping salutes, no bussing of cheeks Friday as France pinned its Legion of Honor to the chests of 10 old warriors.

There were no snapping salutes, no bussing of cheeks Friday as France pinned its Legion of Honor to the chests of 10 old warriors.

The 30-minute ceremony instead went like this: 10 liberators of France in the late stages of World War II sat quietly in a row in a meeting room in Charlotte’s South End.

Denis Barbet, consul general of France in Atlanta, read their names and wartime deeds in his rich accent. The diplomat then gently leaned down, one by one, to pin the blood-red ribbons with white stars, just above the heart, as children and grandchildren strained to see.

With that, 70-year-old memories flowed.

Olin B. McKee, a first sergeant of Battery B of the 266th Field Artillery Battalion, wasn’t too far from the front lines.

The Charlotte native, who would later settle in Rock Hill, was part of a crew that fired the largest, mobile artillery piece that U.S. Army had during the war, the 240 mm howitzer.

McKee’s job was to keep the two howitzers of Battery B equipped with ammunition. Shells for the howitzer – nicknamed the “Black Dragon” – weighed 360 pounds.

“We were fairly safe, not being on the front lines,” McKee said Friday.

“I did what I had to do,” said McKee, 91, of his U.S. Army experience. The draftee “went from private to first sergeant.”

After receiving his “ruptured duck,” officially the Honorable Service Lapel Button, McKee returned to Charlotte and then moved to Rock Hill where he and his wife, Winnie Pope McKee, raised their family. She died in 2013. McKee was a contractor for more than 40 years building houses and commercial buildings in the area.

McKee said he was “nervous but happy” to receive the Legion of Honor on Friday.

On June 6, 1944, former Navy Lt. Laurent Morin of Charlotte was a deck officer in the 22nd wave of small landing craft ferrying infantry soldiers to Normandy’s Omaha Beach. The sprays of machine gun fire, the roar of planes overhead and the black smoke of crippled boats are still vivid for Morin at age 94.

“It’s exhilarating to start with. It’s an adventure, in a sense,” Morin said. “You go charging in, and you’re part of a team. Most people don’t think about the consequences – you think it will happen to somebody else.”

Morin survived to take part in another invasion of southern France and two in the Pacific – Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He later served 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, including a posting in Le Havre, France, from which he could see Omaha Beach.

Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Legion of Honor is the nation’s highest honor.

France has honored 300 veterans from the Southeast in dozens of similar ceremonies over the past eight years. Recipients must have served in France, been honorably discharged and recommended for the honor.

Charlottean Francis McGrail, 92, considers his life a full one.

As a young man, the former carpet salesman worked in New York as an usher at Radio City Music Hall, relaxing on the roof with Rockettes between shows. On Friday, he posed for pictures with 28 family members, the medal handsome against his blue blazer.

As a tank commander, McGrail fought in four battles on French soil after landing at Normandy. He wryly recalls the Brits’ joking reference to American tanks as “Ronsons,” the cigarette lighters, for the way German anti-tank guns lit them up as they crossed French hedgerows.

But what sticks with him most about the war is “how close the difference is between living and dying.

“You know, why him and not me? You don’t know the answer.

“I lost people I knew, and that hurts.”

The Herald’s Don Worthington contributed.

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