Two Santa Ynez Valley veterans of World War II became knights of the French realm Wednesday when they were presented with that nation’s highest award to civilian and military individuals for their achievements and service to the country.
Retired U.S. Army Technicians 5th Grade Rutledge A. “Putty” Mills and John E. Wright each received the medal from Christophe Lemoine, consul general of France in Los Angeles.
The 11 a.m. ceremony, attended by nearly 50 family members, friends and local dignitaries, took place in the American Legion Wing of the Solvang Veterans Memorial Building.
Lemoine told the guests the he was presenting the medals “because we need to express the everlasting gratitude of the people of France (to those) who helped restore the freedom of France.”
“As young men, they left their homes to fight and liberate not only France but also all of Europe,” he said, citing the “special friendship” between the two countries “fighting side by side for freedom” since the American Revolution.
“The French people will never forget your service to restore our freedom,” Lemoine told Wright and Mills. “You are an inspiration to us all, and you are an inspiration to the younger generations.
“Thank you for your bravery, thank you for your heroism and thank you for your sacrifice.”
He then pinned the medals on Mills and Wright.
“May I say, if needed again, I’m ready to go,” Mills said.
Wright noted that while fighting in France, he had good times and times that were not so good, but he said the French were “good people.”
“They were so helpful,” he said. “They warned us of things that were going on. They even liked our K-rations.”
Wright went on to describe the items in K-rations, the combat meals supplied to U.S. troops during World War II that included cracker biscuits in waxed paper and an entree in a tuna-size can packed with other items in a small cardboard box.
“The crowning touch was two sheets of toilet paper,” he said. “What the hell can you do with two sheets of toilet paper?”
But he said the women especially liked them because they contained items the people of war-torn France could not obtain.
“They would trade their good French bread and good French cheese for these lousy K-rations,” he said.
On a more serious note, Wright said both his father and stepfather served in France in World War I. His father was gassed and died from complications of that in the 1930s, and his stepfather suffered machine-gun wounds.
“But that’s OK,” he said. “They were good men and did what the needed to do.”
Grandson John Wright said his grandfather really did all the things he talks about while helping liberate France from the Germans in World War II.
“He’s got a million stories,” he said. “And he remembers everything. He remembers the names of people from 75 years ago — all the members of his unit. He’s been a great role model as a grandfather.”
Wright joined the Army in January 1943 and was deployed as a heavy truck driver with the 482nd Engineer Maintenance Company in Debach, England, where he helped build and maintain airfields for the 8th Air Force.
He arrived in Normandy, France, in July 1944, just over a month after D-Day, and saw action there and in northern France, Rhineland, the Ardennes and central European campaigns.
His significant decorations include the European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal with five bronze stars and the Good Conduct Medal.
Mills joined the Army in February 1943 intending to become a pilot, but while attending bombardier and navigator training, he was deployed as an aircraft mechanic in the 331st Field Artillery Battalion with Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army in Le Havre, France.
He saw action in central Europe and northern France, including at the Battle of the Bulge.
When the war in Europe ended, he was deployed to the Philippines for battlefield cleanup until the Japanese surrendered.
His significant decorations include the American, European-African-Middle Eastern and Asiatic campaign medals, the World War II Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.
In addition to the Legion of Honor medals, Mills and Wright received recognition from other dignitaries at the event.
Those included certificates from Santa Barbara County, presented by 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann; from the city of Solvang, presented by Mayor Jim Richardson; and from the U.S. Congress, presented by Rep. Salud Carbajal’s field representative Julia Diamond.
Col. Bob Reeves, with the Air Force Space Command, also presented each of them with a space coin.
Others who attended the presentation included James Kunkle, a P-38 pilot who flew his 36th mission providing fighter cover over Normandy on D-Day and continued to fly until being shot down near Aachen, Germany.
He received the French Legion of Honor in 2009, and during his remarks told Mills and Wright: “We’re all from Pennsylvania.”
George Moran, from the U.S. Veterans Administration, also attended the ceremony, as did Solvang councilwomen Joan Jamieson and Karen Waite, whose grandfather was wounded landing on Utah Beach in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and went on to fight in the famous Battle of the Bulge.
The ceremony, coordinated by Alvin Salge, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7139, was followed by a luncheon for all the guests.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.