Georgia WWII veteran to be honored by French government

Louis Graziano, 98, a witness to historic events in Europe
09/15/2021 — Thomson, Georgia — World War II Veteran Louis Graziano, 98, prepares to drive to his residence in Thomson, Wednesday, September 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

09/15/2021 — Thomson, Georgia — World War II Veteran Louis Graziano, 98, prepares to drive to his residence in Thomson, Wednesday, September 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Thomson — Louis Graziano remembers the grim-faced German troops arriving in the little red schoolhouse that day in 1945 in Reims, France. A U.S. Army master sergeant, his duties including helping rebuild and maintain parts of the city, including that building, where the Germans showed up to surrender at the end of World War II.

Now 98, he remembers feeling glad the war was over and that he would be able to return home after serving nearly three years abroad.

“They came in straight-faced. They didn’t have much to smile about,” he recalled about the Germans. “I had the room set up where they were all going to sit. It didn’t take them no time to sign the papers.”

This Friday, the French government will present Graziano with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration. It is given to French citizens and foreign nationals who have served the country and its ideals. Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur are among its best-known American recipients.

Graziano could be the sole surviving witness of the German surrender, according to the consulate and Eric Montgomery, a military history buff from Tennessee who submitted Graziano’s records to the French government.

Scores of Graziano’s family and friends are traveling to see him receive the honor at a 1 p.m. ceremony here.

“It’s a great thing,” he said of the honor, sitting in his office and surrounded by his WWII mementos. “I appreciate them giving me that.”

Louis Graziano, 98, is among America’s rapidly dwindling number of surviving World War II veterans. There are fewer than 330,000 alive today. (Handout)

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Vincent Hommeril, consul general of France in Atlanta, is from Normandy and remembers discussing the war with his parents and grandparents.

“They told me how very happy they were to see and welcome American and other Allied soldiers – during this time of great darkness,” he said. “I am deeply honored to be able to bestow this decoration to Mr. Graziano and other WWII veterans and to personally give thanks for their bravery and service.”

Born in 1923, between the 1918 influenza pandemic and the Great Depression, Luciano “Louis” Charles Graziano grew up in East Aurora, New York. He is the son of Sicilian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island. While his mother, Filipa, raised him and his four older siblings, his father, Pietro, worked as a railroad watchman and as a brick mason. After his sister opened a beauty salon, Graziano followed in her footsteps, becoming a hairstylist.

He was drafted in 1943 and boarded a ship for Scotland before arriving by train in England. After landing in France as part of the Allied invasion, he pushed all the way to Reims, where he was put in charge of plumbing, communication, electrical and construction work.

Graziano met his future wife, Bobbie, there. He remembers first seeing her pitching in a softball game. An Alabama native, she was also serving in the U.S. military.

“She was a staff sergeant, and I was a master sergeant, so I pulled my rank on her,” he joked.

Louis Graziano and his beloved late wife, Bobbie. They were married for 62 years (Handout)

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When the was over, they settled in the Augusta area. They were married for 62 years before she passed away in 2007. Her photos are prominently displayed in their home and on the dashboard of his red Ford pickup truck. Graziano still cuts hair in the same brick salon he built with his bare hands. He works near the front of his shop, where he can look out the window and see the world. Copies of his book, “A Patriot’s Memoirs of World War II,” sit on the counter next to his salon chair. Graziano didn’t talk about the war for years, his daughters said, and decided to write his memoir after Bobbie died.

“I think he wanted people to realize what they went through for our freedom,” said his daughter, Moira Johnson.

“He is having a hard time thinking of himself as a hero and a famous person,” she added, “because that is not Dad.”

Another daughter, Kim Evans, agreed: “He says the heroes are the ones who died.”

A big stack of mail was piled up nearby. People from around the world write him daily, thanking him for his sacrifices and asking for autographs. Strangers routinely show up at his salon to learn what it was like that day during the Nazi surrender. Graziano, who survived a battle with COVID-19 in September, is also often asked about the secret to his longevity. He points to a habit he picked up from his Sicilian parents.

“I cook everything with olive oil,” he said.

He has three other children, including a son who served in Vietnam and who has received three Purple Hearts. Fittingly, that son, Louis “Butch” C. Graziano II, is scheduled to speak at his ceremony Friday.

Asked what message he has for fellow Americans, Graziano kept it simple: “Fight for their country. Do what has to be done.”

09/15/2021 — Thomson, Georgia — World War II veteran Louis Graziano, 98, sits for a portrait at his residence in Thomson, Wednesday, September 15, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer