TIPP CITY — For Jesse Chamberlain, words cannot adequately describe the feeling of being awarded an international honor.
“It’s very nice,” he said, smiling. On the table in front of him, in its red box, was a medal recognizing his service to France in World War II.
Tipp City resident Chamberlain is one of millions of Americans who served in the Second World War, but he is now a member of a much smaller group: the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
Earlier this year, Chamberlain was awarded the Legion of Honor medal, the highest distinction that can be given by the French government. The Order was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
“The family’s so proud of Dad,” his daughter Lauren Czehut said. Last year a story in a Florida newspaper about other WWII veterans receiving the award caught her eye. The story mentioned that the French government had decided to grant the honor to all U.S. veterans who fought on French soil.
Together Chamberlain and his daughter gathered the necessary paperwork and sent it off to the French Consulate in Chicago. The reviewing process took a year, but in March of 2015, Chamberlain received a letter notifying him of his award.
“Thanks to your courage, and to our American friends and allies, France and Europe have been living in peace for the last seven decades,” Vincent Floreani, Consul General of France in Chicago, wrote in his letter to Chamberlain. “You saved us. We will never forget. For us, the French people, you are heroes. Gratitude and remembrance are forever in our souls.”
Drafted into the Army right out of college, Chamberlain eventually found himself on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus 3. His unit, tasked with shooting down low-flying enemy planes and protecting the bridge heights around the beach, landed under heavy German gunfire.
Chamberlain was trained as a medic and served as a member of the “Fighting 440,” an anti-aircraft battalion. They were a small auxiliary unit that could travel easily wherever they were needed, usually behind the main lines.
But that changed during the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest battles of the war — in which more than 80,000 Americans were killed, injured, or captured.
“During The Bulge, of course, that turned around. We were way behind their lines, behind the German lines,” he recalled.
In December of 1944, Allied troops in the heavily forested Ardennes region were caught off guard by a German attack under the cover of heavy fog. Allied planes were grounded and Chamberlain and his unit were cut off from the main line in the confusion.
They were behind German lines for so long — three or four days — that the Army “took our pin off the map,” Chamberlain remembered.
“Nobody knew where we were, we didn’t even know where we were,” he said. “It was strictly chaos.”
He would later find out how close he and his unit had been to the Malmedy Massacre, the murder of American prisoners of war by their German captors near Malmedy, Belgium.
Another unit trying to find their way back — described by Chamberlain as a younger unit, that hadn’t seen as much combat — took a road through a wooded area where they encountered Germans soldiers. An officer trying to find his way back to Chamberlain’s unit witnessed the massacre.
“They went down this road, parallel to the road we were on, which had forest on both sides and the Germans were in the forest. They got stalled there and they surrendered,” Chamberlain said. The Americans were lined up in a nearby field and shot.
After the war, Chamberlain went home to his native Champaign County where he worked in a grain elevator. It wasn’t long before he decided a change of pace was in order, and he entered the world of banking.
Eventually he took a job at a bank in Tipp City and he and his family landed there for good in the early 1960s. He became active in the community, serving on city council and getting involved in local clubs. He was recognized for his 50 years of service to the area chapter of the United Way.
Surrounded by family in his home earlier this week, he remembered a night more than 70 years ago during the war.
When their lines of communication went down, his commanders, fearing the Germans had infiltrated their lines, ordered Chamberlain’s anti-aircraft unit to fire.
For 30 minutes they fired at open sky, Chamberlain said. To this day he believes there were never any German aircraft overhead that night, but it didn’t matter, because the explosions looked like fireworks.
“It was as nice as the Fourth of July,” he said.