Local World War II veteran receives French Legion of Honor
He made a tenderhearted, war-torn decision that day in France that earned him a Bronze Star fromthe U.S. Army, and now, at long last, the French government is acknowledging his compassion too.
U.S. Army veteran Frank J. Horvath, a former master sergeant, received France’s highest award for valor during a ceremony Sept. 21 at the Consul of France in Philadelphia.
Even after 73 years, the dates and every last detail are as vivid for Horvath as if they happened last Thursday.
“I do have a very good knack of remembering dates, events and all that kind of stuff,” noted the 95-year-old, reaching for his trusted banjo in his residence at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center in Spring City.
The banjo, which the multiinstrumentalist strums frequently, is similar to the one that accompanied Horvath from his native Palmerton to the sands of Omaha Beach and kept him grounded through the turmoil so far from home.
“When I went onto the ship in Brooklyn I had it strapped to my back,” he said, “and when I got off the ship in Liverpool
headed for Normandy people were looking at me wondering, ‘What is this guy doing with an instrument strapped to his back?’”
Horvath served in the K Company’s 331st Infantry Regiment, 83rd Division, landing on Omaha Beach on June 16, 1944.
The 83rd Division had been ordered to replace the 101st Airborne Division in the vicinity of Carentan, France, creating a breakthrough to Brittany, Horvath noted.
On July 21 Horvath was awarded a Bronze Star “for something I’d done in the hedgerows,” he recalled.
“What happened in those hedge rows was that the Germans would have a tank in one corner and a machine gun in another corner, and they’d have snipers in trees,” he said. “So when you wanted to go into that area you’d have to pass through this entrance. If you weren’t careful you’d walk into an ambush that nobody could survive. So we lost quite a few men that way.”
As platoon leader during Operation Cobra, whichwas the code name for an offensive launched by Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley following the D-Day landings during the Normandy Campaign, Horvath found himself confronting a concrete bunker that he learned was occupied by both Germans and French.
“I got my bazooka man to fire two shells, which had no effect because the walls were probably 2 feet thick. But it injured two of my soldiers through shrapnel because, for some reason, they were not in the right position,” Horvath remembered. “I noticed the steps going down with a steel door and I hollered in to them. They yelled back asking if we were going to shoot them.”
Horvath responded that he had no intention of firing at them.
“I also heard French people inside that bunker,” he said. “Whether they were holding them as hostages, I have no idea. But I looked in there and then decided to cease all operations against this bunker. There was no
way they could hurt us, and I figured in due time they would come to their senses, which they did. About three or four hours later the Germans decided to give up.”
Horvath did not escape unscathed from the confrontation.
“As I was looking intothe entryway I heard this gun go off and they hit me in the leg,” he explained.
Horvath said that his action to protect French citizens is what earned him the Legion of Honor Medal, to be presented by Michael Scullin, honorary consul of France in Philadelphia and Wilmington, at the Consul of France, located at the law offices of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter LLP, 1 Penn Center, Suburban Station, 1617 JFK Blvd., Suite 1500, Philadelphia.
In addition to two Bronze Stars, Horvath was also awarded a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in battle, a Good Conduct Medal, an American Theater Service Medal and a Victory Medal.
American veterans who fought on French territory in one of the four main campaigns of the liberation of France (Normandy, Provence, Ardennes, or Northern France) qualify to be considered for decoration as chevaliers, or knights, of the Legion of Honor.
“I think the French government is awarding me their medal in honor of the fact that I did not order artillery on this bunker, which would probably have killed most of the people inside, which would have been French people too,” Horvath said.
After spending four months recuperating in a hospital in England, Horvath entered Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s Information and Education Division — “which meant that instead of sending me back to the states on limited service, I was going back into France on a retraining regimen for officers,” he noted — and eventually studied music at Biarritz University in France, where hemet his future wife, Jacqueline Marie Antoinette Seres.
The couple raised three daughters — Carolyn Arnold, the late Patricia Horvath and Giselle Knoblauch, currently a nursing teacher at Norristown Area High School — in Palmerton, where Horvath returned to his job as a zinc machinist accountant after the war.
He ultimately left the zinc industry for an administrative job with the U.S. Postal Service, retiring in 1984.
With a timorous grin, he recalled initially being sent home to recover from a tummy ailment after attempting to enlist in the U.S. Air Force in 1942.
“I wanted to enlist in the Air Force and I took a trol- ley from Allentown to Philadelphia togo to the customs house, where all the military people who were entering the different armed forces were examined. On the way down,” he said, “I got sick on the trolley, and when I got down there to take my physical exam the doctor said ‘You look pale. What happened to you?’ I told him the truth, that I felt sick.”
The prompt medical advice that followed was to head back home, get better and come back in three months.
“Two months later, I was drafted,” said Horvath, whose wartime memories are never shelved for long, emerging every summer when he speaks to a gathering of history teachers fromall over the country at the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.
“The kids today have no idea what we went through to provide the education they have now,” he said.
Of course, Horvath never forgets to tote along his banjo to accompany himself when he’s treating his audience to those “happy World War II songs.”
“They’re happy because we won the war,” he added with a smile.
Frank Horvath with the bronze stars and other awards he earned during World War II.
U.S. Army veteran Frank J. Horvath receivef France’s highest award for valor during a ceremony on Sept. 21at the Consul of France in Philadelphia.