WWII 4ID Vet William G. Greenlee receives the French Legion of Honor Medal

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(Mike Conley/McDowell News)

CHARLOTTE - In 1944, William G. Greenlee of Marion, North Carolina was one of the many thousands of American troops who were fighting to liberate France and defeat Adolf Hitler’s forces.

Almost 70 years later, the French government formally said thank you to Greenlee and 14 other World War II veterans from North Carolina for what they did to free France from Hitler’s Third Reich. These aged veterans were presented with the Legion of Honor, France’s highest tribute, at a special ceremony in Charlotte. And it was given to them on Veterans Day.

“Nov. 11 is a very special day,” said Consul General Denis Barbet. “It’s a day of remembrance. Today, France pays homage to the courage of American heroes.”

(Photo by T.Ortega Gaines - ogaines@charlotteobserver.com)

Bill Greenlee, 94, is one of those American heroes. Before America entered World War II, he had already graduated from N.C. State University. He joined the U.S. Army in February 1943 as a buck private at the age of 24. He served with the 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Division and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Greenlee said he arrived in France 20 days after D-Day, which was June 6, 1944. He fought in Normandy, Northern France, the Ardennes and the Rhineland. He and the other members of the 22nd Infantry were part of the savage fighting in the Hurtgen Forest, a series of battles fought with the Germans between September and December 1944.

He was awarded the Purple Heart, four Bronze Stars, the Silver Star and the World War II Victory Medal.

Greenlee was wounded twice during the war. He still carries nine pieces of metal inside his body some 70 years later.

After the war, Greenlee would go on to become a civic leader in his hometown of Marion. He was the director for Nationwide Insurance and became an active member of the Soil and Water Conservation Board. He’s been honored for those services as well.

He’s also returned several times to France where they have never forgotten what he and the other American troops did there. “I have been back several times and they just love us,” he said.

He’s attended reunions of the 22nd Infantry and the 4th Division. He’s also visited the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. during one of those reunions.

(Photo by Mike Conley/McDowell News)

On Veterans Day, Greenlee was joined by stepsons Rick Freitag and Greg Freitag, Greg’s wife Sharon, stepdaughter Linda Freitag Scott, niece Grace Greenlee, friend Craig Thomas and a McDowell News reporter as they traveled to the ceremony in Charlotte held by the Consul General of France in Atlanta. There, he and 14 other veterans of the European Theatre of World War II were presented with the Legion of Honor.

“I am just glad to hear it,” said Greenlee of his award.

The ceremony was held in a ballroom at Byron's South End, located at 101 W. Worthington Ave. Suite 110 in Charlotte. After Greenlee and his family arrived, he was interviewed by TV reporter Rad Berky of WCNC, Channel 36, as well as The McDowell News reporter.

Greenlee was asked about his feelings regarding Monday’s ceremony and whether it made him think about his fellow soldiers, both those who were killed during the war and those who passed away later.

“I think about them a lot, particularly when I get older,” he said to The McDowell News.

The veterans were given a place of honor to sit facing the audience. One of them unfortunately was not able to attend the ceremony.

At the beginning, a singer performed the national anthems for both the United States and France: “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise.”

In his remarks, Barbet said this was the largest gathering yet for the presentation of the Legion of Honor to World War II veterans. He then proceeded to give the Legion of Honor, which was founded in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Greenlee was the first one to receive it.

Bernard L. Marie (Left)

After the presentation, Bernard Marie also spoke to everyone present. A native of Normandy in France, Marie was just 5 years old on June 6, 1944. He and his family lived five miles from the Normandy beach that the Allies had given the codename of Omaha. When the Allied invasion began, Marie’s family retreated to their basement for safety. The young Marie had no idea how long they would be there as the fighting above raged on and on.

“It was 16 hours in a basement not knowing if we would survive,” said Marie.

Now, Marie is on the board of directors for the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. He is also friends with Greenlee and his family. And he too is grateful for what Greenlee and the others veterans did to liberate his native France. He invited all of them to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration next year in Bedford, Va.

“They should never be forgotten,” said Marie.

It was a busy week for Bill Greenlee. On Sunday, he and fellow World War II veteran Rudy Long laid a wreath at the Veterans Memorial Wall next to the Senior Center.

 He has a brick in that wall to commemorate his service.“I am glad we have a place for the county to remember,” said of the local memorial. And on Veterans Day, the country he helped liberate said it too remembers.

“This has been a good day for me,” said Greenlee following the ceremony.

 

Website Editor’s Note:

LTC William G. ‘Bill’ Greenlee served with G & H Companies 2-22 IN, 4th Infantry Division WWII, and is a charter member of the Carolinas Chapter, 4th Infantry Division Association.

He is pictured (left) with Richard ‘Rick’ Adams, Past President of the 4th Infantry Division Association and the Carolinas Chapter. Rick was accompanied by his wife Patty, for the Medal ceremony.

Driving to the ceremony in Charlotte, we traveled down Freedom Drive, crossing Camp Greene Street, and within a mile of the Dowd House – Headquarters of WWI Camp Greene, and Monument Street where a statue was erected to mark the camp where the 3rd, 4th, and 42nd Divisions were formed in December 1917, and all within the shadow of the Carolina Panther’s stadium. So much history right here and it continues to be made.  

Bill is pictured below with Bernard L. Marie