ATLANTA — A Chattanooga veteran who served as a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II on Monday received France's Legion of Honor, the highest decoration bestowed by that country.
Capt. Donald Seesenguth, 96, was pinned with the medal alongside six other veterans at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta.
The Legion of Honor, which recognizes outstanding service to the French Republic, was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
Seesenguth enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on Aug. 5, 1942. As a member of the 748th squadron of the 457th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, he flew 30 combat missions, including in campaigns over Normandy, northern France and the Ardennes region of Belgium, France and Luxembourg. On his last 20 missions he was the squadron lead pilot.
On Dec. 24, 1944, as Seesenguth flew to assist U.S. ground troops at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, his aircraft was hit with shrapnel over enemy territory. A piece of shrapnel lodged in his left thigh but he kept piloting the plane and completed the mission.
Doctors were unable to remove the shrapnel, which remains in his thigh and earned him the Purple Heart. He also was awarded an Air Medal with four olive leaf clusters and the European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal.
"You are true heroes. You will be our heroes forever," French Consulate General Louis de Corail told the veterans before pinning them with their medals.
"We, the French, we will never forget what you did to restore our freedom. And today, we also remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many of your comrades who rest on French soil. They will remain forever in our hearts," he added.
The other six veterans at Monday's ceremony came from across Georgia.
"We met six other recipients today that were equally deserving," Seesenguth said. "I felt honored to be invited."
Foreign nationals who have served France or the ideals it upholds may receive the Legion of Honor. They must have fought in one of the four main campaigns for the liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or Northern France.
Among the more than 90,000 Legion of Honor recipients are President Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Douglas MacArthur and the United States Military Academy at West Point.