Chattooga County, Ga., native Emmett Dooley survived the hell that was Omaha Beach on July 6, 1944. That was reward enough.
But 67 years later the government of France chose to honor him with one of its most prestigious awards, the Legion of Merit.
Dooley was among 17 Americans so recognized at a recent Atlanta ceremony hosted by Pascal Le Deunff, consul general of France- and he wasn't expecting it.
"We are privileged to be surrounded by so many heroes who fought for the liberation of France and Europe," Le Deunff said. "We cannot praise these men enough for all of what they've done. As we celebrate their heroism today, let us not forget that we, too, have a duty to fulfill, to keep the memory of their utmost courage alive for generations to come. Yes, we must not ever forget. We must fight together to make the memory live on."
What Pfc. Dooley, 86, remembers most about that historic day in 1944 was the hot welcome he and fellow members of the 29th Division's 116th Infantry regiment received as they sought to protect the western flank of the U.S. First Division.
"They [the Germans] were up on those hills firing down at us," he said. "There were so many bullets it was like rain coming down. I just wanted to get off that beach and get inland like they told us to do."
Dooley made it, but not before seeing many of his friends in the regiment killed or wounded in some of the most vicious fighting of a bloody day.
Dooley escaped D-Day uninjured, but his luck ran out a few days later in bitter fighting near the town of St. Lo. There he received a head wound from a machine gun round that punctured his helmet and grenade fragments in his knee and shoulder.
He returned to combat later but was wounded again near Brest, France, when a German infantryman shot him in the right side of his chest.
Dooley finished out the war in a hospital bed in England.
He received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star from his own country.
Back at home in Dry Valley was his young bride, Mary, with whom he had attended church before proposing.
"We had only been married for four months when he joined the service," she recalled. "I wrote him a lot and he wrote me back some. They wouldn't let them say much about what was happening over there; he couldn't even tell us where he was."
But receiving the Legion of Merit, an honor created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, so long after the war was a total surprise to Dooley. Friends and family members who helped qualify him for the medal did not tell him what was going on until the event.
One of the most active people in making sure Dooley was recognized was longtime family friend Wayne Parker, of Chattooga County.
"I grew up beside Mr. Dooley in Dickeyville, and now we go to church together in Dry Valley," said Parker. "I knew he was in that first wave of soldiers on Omaha Beach, and I knew another Chattooga County veteran had received that medal. I couldn't rest until he got it, too."
The process took two years, with lots of paperwork to be completed and verified. Parker said physician Doug Caron and state Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, each helped in the effort.
It still took a long time, but when I saw that look on his face last week, it was all worth it," Parker said.
On the day of the ceremony Dooley's wife of 69 years, Mary, told him to "just get dressed up and come on." He believed he was going to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Atlanta, but family members did tell him they had a surprise for him.
"I didn't have any idea what they were talking about," Dooley said. "I was completely surprised."
Jimmy Espy is based in Dalton. Contact him at email@example.com.