OLEAN, N.Y., – Surrounded by 120 friends and family members, Charlie Brown, a 95-year old veteran of the New York Army National Guard's 258th Field Artillery Regiment, received France's highest honor Dec. 20.
Brown received the French Legion of Honor in recognition of his role liberating France in World War II at a ceremony in his hometown of Olean at the Olean Community Church he helped found.
"How could we French forget D-Day in France and your heroic action? We did not. We never forget," said Pascal Soares, the Honorary Consul of France in Buffalo who presented the award. "Even my mother and father, who were 10 and 12 years old at the time, they remember when the Nazis came into town, occupying, and leaving town as you and your comrades were liberating our cities."
The former private first class was inducted into the Army in 1943 at the age of 18 and was sent to Scotland the following year to prepare for the invasion of Europe. He landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, July 2, 1944, and spent the next 302 days fighting across France and Europe, from the invasion of France to the Battle of the Bulge.
Shortly after his high school graduation, Brown was drafted as a fire direction instrument operator, working with his regiment's 155 mm howitzer cannons. He participated in three of the four major campaigns in France – Normandy, Ardennes and Northern France. Only one is necessary to be eligible for the Legion of Honor.
"I heard they gave one to President Eisenhower," said Brown of the award, which is the highest award for military and civilian service given by the French. "And now a Pfc. has one."
In 2017, Brown reached out to the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and current members of the 258th Field Artillery to present the memorabilia he'd saved from his World War II experience and tell his story.
Brown was in a position in the 258th where he was able to keep meticulous records of the regiment's actions during the war. He recounted to those who attended the ceremony that during their time in Europe, they fired 33,902 rounds from their howitzers.
Those documents, items and a captured German flag became a special exhibit at the military museum, and the members of the 1st Battalion, 258th Field Artillery, adopted the World War II artilleryman as one of their own.
Brown's records made it possible for the unit to fill in gaps in its history, said Capt. Steve Kerr, the commander of Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion, 258th Field Artillery.
The unit invited Brown to Fort Drum to meet current 258th Field Artillery Soldiers and pull the lanyard on the latest high-tech howitzer assigned to the unit. He was also a guest at the battalion's annual banquet, where he was awarded the Ancient Order of St. Barbara, presented for service to the field artillery branch, and presented with a modern combat uniform.
"Charlie is an outstanding gentleman and truly has a remarkable story and has been an instrumental part of our family," said Kerr. "I know I speak for everyone in this room when I say how proud of you I am today and how thankful I am for your service."
Kerr and Maj. Brian Napier, the battalion executive officer, Lt. Col. Peter Mehling, a former commander of the 1st Battalion, 258th Field Artillery, and Maj. Eric Emerling, a member of the 153rd Troop Command, represented the New York Army National Guard at the ceremony.
Brown said he couldn't put into words what it meant to receive the award and the fact that so many people wanted to come out to recognize what he did during his time at war.
He did say he is proud of the next generation of Soldiers, pointing out the current members of the 258th who attended the ceremony.
The ceremony also recognized that this December marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the most massive American battle of World War II.
"Today you are our hero, today you are my liberator," Soares told Brown.
Brown said he simply held his gun close and got through the war, while friends around him did not.
"I remember going past the Statue of Liberty on our way to Europe and wondering if I would ever see it again," said Brown. "I did."