France to honor five Georgia D-Day veterans

“The only way I know to describe it is ‘Hell on Earth’” one vet recalls

Lee Brown says he’s always been an early riser.

Four days a week, the 84-year-old greets customers beginning at 5 a.m. at the Alpharetta Wal-Mart.

But it’s an early morning more than 65 years ago that Brown will never forget.

As a 19-year-old Army Ranger, Brown was involved in a massive invasion along the coast of France, better known as D-Day.

“On that particular day, I was off the shores of France on a boat,” Brown said. “At four in the morning, they woke us up and we had breakfast. And they indicated they wanted us to get to the embarkation section of the boat.”

Once in smaller boats, Brown and the others sped off toward the beach, and directly into a battle that would eventually free the country of France.

On Friday, Brown will be one of five Georgia veterans honored for their heroism during World War II. The veterans will receive the Legion of Honor, the highest honor given to any non-French citizen, according to Claire Collobert with Atlanta’s Consulate General of France, where the ceremony will be held.

“It is important for our country to show them our gratitude,” said Collobert, a native of France. “We try to honor as many veterans as we can find.”

Similar ceremonies have been held around the U.S. as the French government continues to track the veterans. Seventeen veterans from the southeast will be honored Friday at the French consul, and at least seven have confirmed their attendance, Collobert said.

Charles Wilson, 84, of Summerville plans to make the trip to Atlanta for the ceremony, along with several family members. Wilson was drafted into the military just a month after getting married. In April, he celebrated his 66th wedding anniversary.

Still, it’s memories from a June morning in 1944 that Wilson struggles to put into words.

“The only way I know to describe it is ‘Hell on Earth,’” Wilson said.

A former magistrate judge in Chattooga County, Wilson said he’s visited three schools to tell his role in history.

“There’s a lot that can’t never be explained, because there’s no way to explain it,” he says. “They need to know.”

Brown said he plans to return to France with his wife and two sons next summer — in time for the June 6 anniversary.

“We’ve got to take him, for us. We want to go there with him,” said Phil Brown, one of Lee Brown’s two sons. “For a long time he wouldn’t consider going.”

Lee Brown now says he’s ready to go back. He’ll use some of the four weeks of vacation time he gets at his Wal-Mart job.

“This time I’ll walk the beach instead of running the beach,” he said.

Other Georgia veterans who will be honored in the noon ceremony include Robert E. Philips, of Byron, John H. Self of Douglasville and Willie E. Lambert of Cumming.