Retired U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. Donald Seesenguth's heroism more than 70 years ago earned him France's highest military honor in late September.
For his role in the liberation of France during World War II, the now-96-year-old East Ridge resident was one of seven U.S. military veterans from Georgia and Tennessee who received the National Order of the Legion of Honor at a ceremony held in Atlanta, Ga.
"I must confess how deeply honored and moved I am every time to present the insignia of the Legion of Honor," Louis de Corail, the consul general of France for the American Southeast, said at the event.
Born and raised on a farm in Indiana, Seesenguth enlisted in the Air Force at age 20, so young that his parents had to sign for him. Following pilot's training, ground school, primary flying school and basic training, he went into specialized training to be a four-engine B-17 pilot. After training with a crew in Florida, Seesenguth picked up a plane in Savannah and headed toward Newfoundland, where he stayed for two weeks before leaving for England.
He was assigned to the 457th bomb group, 748th squadron, and started flying combat missions in early 1944.
"In France, I was never on the ground," he said. "I flew 30 combat missions over Germany, the last 20 as squadron lead pilot."
One of those missions in late 1944 earned him a Purple Heart, bestowed upon those wounded or killed while serving.
"The day before Christmas 1944, the weather had been so bad, but the day before Christmas they said, 'Well you'll fly regardless of the weather,'" he recalled. After surviving a crash upon takeoff, " we went in, tacked on to another crew, went on in. But before we got to the Bulge, our airplane got hit. We lost an engine and I got a piece of shrapnel in my leg, so we picked a targeted opportunity to drop our bomb and try to get back in home base. The weather was so bad we couldn't get back, so we got into another base over close to the channel. I spent Christmas Eve over there in the hospital for a couple weeks before I went back and started flying again."
Seesenguth still lives with that shrapnel in his body today, though his most recent honor wasn't for the injuries he sustained, but for the fact that he endured. Enacted by Napoleon, the Legion of Honor recognizes those who have provided "eminent services to the French Republic," according to a release.
Seesenguth was awarded for his role in the Normandy invasion, where he supported ground troops from his bomber plane, though he notes that his mission was actually at Saint-Lo, just beyond the D-Day landing spot.
After 585 of hours of combat flying time, which also took him to the front lines of the Korean War, he retired his wings, but not the ideals that carried him through his decades of service.
About being honored he said, "We just did what we had to do during the war. We just did our jobs, what we had to do back then."
Contact Dillon Dodson at 757-6579.