Robert L. Sales landed at Normandy in the first wave of the D-Day offensive and fought his way across France before he was wounded and left partially blind. On Tuesday, French President Francois Hollande will make Sales a knight of the Legion of Honor, a ceremonial thank-you for helping liberate France from Nazi German occupation.
Sales, 91, of Madison Heights, Va., is among six World War II veterans chosen to receive the medal directly from the French president during Hollande's three-day visit to the United States. Hundreds of other Americans have been awarded the medal in the decade since France opened up eligibility to all living U.S. veterans who fought on French territory during any of four major campaigns.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 1.7 million of the more than 16 million Americans who fought in the war are still alive, spokeswoman Genevieve Billia said. She said the agency doesn't keep records of where they fought.
With D-Day's 70th anniversary approaching in June, Sales said he's delighted to be able to add the French medal to his decorations.
"I'm very proud of it," the retired real-estate dealer said in a telephone interview Friday. "I haven't seen a president of France since de Gaulle in 1944."
Sales chartered a limousine to make sure he and 20 guests would arrive comfortably at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, just outside Washington near Arlington National Cemetery.
Another honoree, 92-year-old George A. Shenkle of Lansdale, Pa., planned to come alone.
"I've been a loner all my life," the retired steel industry worker said. "When I was in the service, I never permitted myself to get close to anyone because of the fear of sudden death. That was the way I was all my life. I still am."
Shenkle said he parachuted into France at 2 a.m. on D-Day. He says he did nothing heroic but his unit, the Army's 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was cited for outstanding performance as its members endured anti-aircraft and machine gun fire, seized a strategically important hill and fought for three days.
Shenkle said he applied for the French medal a couple years ago.
"I consider this quite an honor. I'm really almost speechless thinking of this thing," he said in a telephone interview.
Former Air Force bombardier Arthur W. Ordel Jr. of Keswick, Va., said he'll be proud to wear the medal. Sixteen of his 35 bombing missions were to targets in France, he said, but the one on D-Day was a bust.
"The weather was bad and I couldn't' drop my bombs, so we turned around and went back to the base and reported. And they said, 'That's all right, we'll send another group after lunch,'" Ordel said in a telephone interview.
He said he used his GI benefits to earn a master's degree in forestry from Duke University and worked as a forester in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
The others receiving Legion of Honor medals are John C. Cheban, of Vienna, Va.; and Henry E. Ponton, Jr. and Charles S. Toms, both of Frederick, Md.
Hollande also is awarding the medal to the World War II Unknown at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.