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Clinton man to receive France's highest honor
Members of the 82nd Airborne Division, above, parachuted into France early in the morning on June 6, 1944. One of the division's members, Henry Langrehr, was captured, and later escaped from a Nazi prison camp. Langrehr returned to Clinton, Iowa, after the war, raised a family, and owned his own business for 44 years. (COURTESY NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

As a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, Henry Langrehr was one of 6,000 who parachuted into France early in the morning of June 6, 1944.

He survived the jump, then months of fighting, being wounded twice and escaping from a Nazi prison camp after months of working as a laborer mining coal.

The U.S. Army awarded him two Purple Heart and two Bronze Star medals.

Now, at age 82, Langrehr, of Clinton, is to be honored again.

On Sept. 28, by decree of the president of the French republic, Langrehr was named a knight of the Legion of Honor for his actions during World War II.

To be a knight of the Legion of Honor is “the highest honor that France can bestow upon those who have achieved remarkable deeds for France,” according to a letter Langrehr received from Jean-Baptiste Main de Boissière, the consulate general of France in Chicago. “It is also a sign of true gratitude for your invaluable contribution to the liberation of France during these difficult times in the history of our nation.”

Langrehr is one of six American World War II servicemen who will receive the honor at a service on Tuesday at the French residence in Washington, D.C. French President Nicolas Sarkozy will preside over the ceremony.

All six are invited to attend a session of Congress Wednesday where Sarkozy will speak.

Etienne de Gonneville, a spokesman for the French embassy in Washington, D.C., said that beginning with the 60th anniversary observance of D-Day in 2004, France has made a special effort to recognize the contributions of American World War II veterans.

“It is their courage, their story, but also their commitment to the liberation of France that President Sarkozy wants to commemorate,” de Gonneville said. “And we also want to express the everlasting gratitude of the people of France.”

Langrehr said he is accepting the award for all the people with whom he served, especially those who did not make it back.

“This isn’t about me,” he said. “There are many guys out there that have given a lot, a lot more than I ever gave, the guys that made the ultimate sacrifice who never got to enjoy what I’ve enjoyed.

“I’ve really been blessed. All the glory goes to God. It’s only God that brought me through.”

French officials told Langrehr in 1999 that they were considering him for the Legion of Honor and would begin an investigation to review his qualifications.

“They don’t do this on the spur of the moment,” he said. “They look at your record and do a thorough check of your military background and the medals you’ve been awarded.”

Langrehr, a demolitions expert, and his unit jumped into France about 1 a.m. on D-Day. Their rally point was Chef du Pont, where troops had to either secure a bridge and hold it, or, if they were overrun, blow it up to keep German reinforcements from getting to the Normandy beachhead. They ended up holding it.

Langrehr’s unit had to fight their way to the bridge.

Like most paratroop planes that morning, theirs was off course, in this case by about five miles. His unit jumped and landed in Ste. Mere-Eglise.

There have been many stories about that jump, including a depiction in the 1962 film “The Longest Day.” Langrehr’s comrade, John Steel, got hung up on the church steeple, like a character in the movie. An effigy of Steel can often be seen hanging from the church by a parachute. He survived and was taken prisoner.

Langrehr landed through the glass of a greenhouse across the street from the church.

“It was full of Germans,” he said of the town. “They killed a lot of guys out of my plane.

“There was a flare or a shell or something that started a big building on fire. The French were fighting the fire, and the Germans were guarding them. The whole square was lit up by this fire, and in the process, we were pretty good targets for the Germans.

“But it was a surprise to the Germans, too. One good thing about that is that they didn’t know how many we were or where we were, and they were afraid to come out.”

Like most of the men he jumped with, it was Langrehr’s first time in combat.

“Again, it was the hand of God that allowed me to survive,” Langrehr said. “I fought my way out and knew where the roads were that led to Chef du Pont.”

While fighting among the bocage hedgerows, he was captured and sent to a German prison camp in Czechoslovakia where he mined coal.

The mine, Langrehr said, was run by the Nazi SS, who paid no attention to the Geneva Convention’s rules of war and the

treatment of prisoners of war. Anyone who refused to work was beaten. Those who attempted to escape and got caught were executed.

“When you go into a situation like that, you have to go in with the mind-set that you’re going to survive,” he said.

Breakfast and lunch consisted of two small pieces of bread made of sawdust and a thin, watery soup made from sugar beets, he said.

“The mine was about a quarter-mile underground,” Langrehr said. “We were mining a brown coal that the Germans used to make fuel.

“You came out of that mine wringing wet and filthy.”

During the winter months, he said, “you’d walk back to camp, and it would freeze on you. Since you only had one uniform, you washed it in cold water. In the cold air, it wouldn’t dry overnight. So the next morning, heading back to the mine, it would freeze again.”

In March 1945, Langrehr and a buddy escaped. His friend was killed as they worked their way back to Allied lines.

For two weeks, Langrehr maneuvered back to American lines without the benefit of an underground organization to help him.

“I was on my own the whole way through,” he said.

Eating meant scavenging and living off the land. Also, German soldiers carried foodstuffs in their rucksacks, he said.

“You’d have to waylay one of them and get a little food,” he said.

Like many of his generation, Langrehr came home ready to get on with living.

He owned his own contracting business in Clinton for 44 years and raised a family. He still works, which he says is a blessing.

A man of deep faith, Langrehr said of himself and other survivors that “God gave us a second life.”

“We at that time did not know if we’d ever get back home,” he said. “If God hadn’t intervened in our lives, we wouldn’t have.

“The Lord has his hand in my life, and he guided me through and saw me home. He had a purpose for me, and that purpose was my family.”

His generation came back motivated to do great things.

“I’m so proud of him,” said one of Langrehr’s daughters, Kay Schneider, of Clinton.

“Growing up, we never knew that much about our father’s role in World War II,” she said. “It’s only been in the last 15 years when he started going out and talking to history groups and churches about his experiences.

“I guess he had enough years away from it.”

Schneider said her father’s generation had lived through the Great Depression and possessed a strong work ethic.

“The society we live in today is very comfortable compared to what my dad grew up in,” Schneider said. “It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of what they went through.”

As for the war, she said, the survivors poured themselves into their work, either to keep their minds from thinking about what they endured or out of thankfulness they were given a chance to do something with their lives.

“Dad walked out of hell,” Schneider said. “God really had a hand in his life. And this is the point of what he’s doing now, speaking about it.

“The further we get from World War II, the more important it is for him to be speaking. It’s important for him and the young people.”

Thomas Geyer can be contacted at (563) 383-2328 or tgeyer@qctimes.com.

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