By Jonathan Cannon
HOUSTON — It has been 68 year since Denison resident Leonard Riley stood at the door of an aircraft preparing to jump behind enemy lines and begin the process of liberating France from Nazi occupation. He was 21 years old.
It was for that act and numerous other acts of bravery that Riley and 11 other World War II veterans who fought on French soil were decorated as “Chevalier” or Knight of the French Legion of Honor. Consul General of France in Houston Frédéric Bontems awarded the designations in ceremony at Ellington Airfield near Houston on Friday.
“It is a sign of France’s infinite gratitude and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the United States’ decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II,” says a letter from French Ambassador to the United States François Delattre to Riley.
Cindy Fredrickson, Riley’s stepdaughter, said he views his sacrifice more simply. “He accepted it as his job,” she said.
Fredrickson, her husband Steve Fredrickson, Riley’s stepson Jay Simpson, and his wife Jane Simpson all joined Riley and his wife, Evelyn Hopkins-Riley, for the ceremony. “I was really proud to see him, to see the men, recognized,” Hopkins-Riley said.
During the D-Day invasion, Riley was a member of the machine gun platoon in Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne. Like many of his fellow paratroopers, Riley was separated from most of his unit when he landed behind enemy lines during the invasion, though he eventually made it to his assembly point.
The next day, the unit moved on to Carentan, where they drove out German forces on June 12. Then it was on to the port city of Cherbough, where Riley stayed for about a month.
“That was D-Day for us. The division lost … over 4,500, killed and wounded,” Riley said in a 2010 interview with the Herald Democrat.
He would go on to fight in Operation Market Garden to liberate the Netherlands; the Battle of the Bulge in Bastongne, France; and finally to take Berchtesgarden, Germany, Adolph Hitler’s vacation retreat. It was while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge that Riley was injured by a piece of shrapnel to his head.
Jay Simpson said Riley was hesitant to talk about his service for many years. “For the first 50 years that I knew Riley, he said very little about this,” Simpson said.
He said once he asked Riley if he had to be carried to the field hospital or if he walked. The response he got was, “‘I walked in,’ and that was all he said about it. Once in a while you got a word or two like that.”
“I’m not sure people like me who’ve never been through that will ever understand that” sacrifice, Simpson continued. “I think we can appreciate it intellectually.”
But he said recognitions like the one bestowed on the 12 veterans on Friday play an important role in helping people to remember the sacrifice of Riley and the thousands of other veterans like him. “It’s important that people know what happened,” Simpson said. “It’s easy to forget if everybody that participated is gone.”
Cindy Fredrickson said for Riley the honor is “icing on the cake. … Riley has gotten other honors, but not as high as this one. It was just a good culmination of it all, his story.”
Ever humble, and now having difficulty speaking because of a stroke several months ago, Riley said simply, “It was quite an honor.”
Read more about Riley’s journey from D-Day to Berchtesgarden by visiting http://bit.ly/11A6t2B.