AKRON, Ohio — Don’t ask Arthur Dinkins to condense his time as a World War II infantryman into one or two defining moments.
To survive the front lines, there are hundreds of actions, large and small, just to get through each day.
It means long daylight hours hunkered down in foxholes to avoid German gunfire, then climbing out at night to march through a French forest, forcing the enemy into retreat.
It means holding breathlessly still on a ridge for two hours while an entire German column advances on the road below, then jumping out to battle those in the rear hoping to shave off their numbers.
It means watching friends drop from a mortar shell blast, helping a medic putting an injured soldier on a raincoat to keep his exposed intestines from the ground, or refusing to run though enemy planes with bombs hanging from their bellies soar overhead.
On Wednesday, France offered its appreciation for that kind of daily heroism when it bestowed on Dinkins its Legion of Honor medal, the highest and most prestigious decoration the country offers.
The award was instituted by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize civilians and soldiers who demonstrate bravery in the service of France. A few years ago, the country started making a concerted effort to find American veterans for the award to show their appreciation for the United States’ role in liberating France from German occupation during World War II.
“You should take great pride in knowing that the French people are forever indebted and grateful to you, Arthur Dinkins, and your American brothers-in-arms for your most heroic bravery and dedication during World War II,” Alexis Andres, consul general of France, based in Houston, said in a letter read during a ceremony at the Summit County Veterans Service Commission in Akron.
“The allied cemeteries on French soil are a constant reminder of the endless debt of gratitude France owes you and the thousands of soldiers who were wounded or perished fighting for our freedom,” he wrote. “Today, France is fully reunited with Germany and this friendship is fueling the dynamics of the European Union. We owe you this long lasting peace.”
Dinkins, 92, of Akron, was flanked by 10 family members at the ceremony, including his wife, Annie, and assorted children and grandchildren.
They listened to words of praise from military officers, as well as U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan.
Dinkins doesn’t really like to be in the spotlight, said his daughter, Susan Patrick, a U.S. Air Force Reserve veteran from Texas. A man of few words, he offered his hand to well-wishers and nodded his appreciation.
It was Patrick who made it her job to collect and submit her father’s memoirs for the honor. She captured his words and composed a journal, dozens of random memories, some frightening, some funny.
Dinkins said he was 18 when he received a special deferment in 1944 so he could remain home and help his dad with the family farm in Indiana. But he thought farm work would be harder than the military, so he enlisted anyway.
At the induction center, he was randomly assigned to Army infantry, and after training he found himself on a ship sailing across the Atlantic to Marseille, France.
Dinkins and his company marched across France, ever pushing the Germans east. His memoir is filled with memories of foxholes and evading machine gun fire and stacking dead German soldiers along the roadside for pickup by a burial detail.
But he also told of thankful French families who passed out apples and let the soldiers sleep in their stables, and receiving a Purple Heart for wounds from a phosphorus grenade that landed at his feet.
After the war, he re-enlisted, but this time in the U.S. Navy, a change partly motivated by observing the sailors — drinking coffee and playing cards — on that first ship he’d taken to Europe.
He remained in the Navy for the Korean War, and then the Vietnam War, retiring in 1975.
Maj. Gen. John Harris, commander of the Army National Guard in Ohio, told Dinkins his generation is the reason American military is respected around the world.
Every time a stranger thanks an active or retired military member, “it was not us who earned that respect, it was you who earned that respect for us,” he said.
Each time the United States aids a European ally, he said, the respect shown to the military “is because we’re riding your coattails.”
When working with locals to fight insurgencies in the Middle East, “the only reason we can earn their trust is because of the respect and the deep reputation we enjoy as American soldiers, and we recognize that we didn’t earn that, sir. You earned that for us,” Harris told Dinkins.
Chip Tansill, director for the Ohio Department of Veteran Services, told Dinkins there aren’t many men alive who can say they served during three wars.
Many veterans keep their stories in their hearts, but Tansill thanked Dinkins for opening up and encouraged other veterans to “start talking” so their experiences aren’t forgotten.
“You, sir,” Tansill said, “are the history of America.”
Information from: Akron Beacon Journal, http://www.ohio.com