The first thing Jimmie H. Royer remembers about World War II is the bodies falling.
The second thing he remembers: the joyful faces of French freedom.
During World War II, Royer served as a gunner through several campaigns in France before he nearly lost a leg and was honorably discharged.
During a ceremony in Terre Haute on Sunday — 75 years later — 94-year-old Royer was honored for his service with France’s highest honor: the Legion of Honor.
Created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, it’s the French equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor. It recognizes eminent service to France. Royer is the sixth Hoosier in the last two years to receive the award authorized through a decree from French President Emmanuel Macron. The other five: John Davis of Plymouth, Daniel Levernier of Milford, Harry Wolfe of Franklin, Donald Cobb of Evansville and Paul Ripley of Fort Wayne, who died shortly after receiving the honor.
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“This is beyond my wildest dreams,” Royer said after receiving the award. “I thank the Lord every day because I’m still here and still walking.”
Royer joined the Army in July 1943 and was a member of the 106th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. Their mission was to observe enemy movements and provide combat support.
He fought in the Normandy, Northern France and Rhineland campaigns starting in March.
On Oct. 27, 1944, Royer was out on patrol on the Lorraine Front when a comrade stepped on a landmine. Royer and another soldier cut down trees and put their field jackets on top to create a makeshift stretcher, and laid the mortally wounded soldier on top.
“The last thing he said to me was, ‘be careful with my legs, Jim,'” Royer said after the ceremony.
Shortly after, Royer was walking in a field when he spotted someone else out of the corner of his eye. Before Royer could warn the soldier, another landmine went off.
The blast tore through Royer’s left leg. That leg, his son Scott Royer said, is now full of scar tissue.
The evening before Thanksgiving, medics took him down to the operating room, cut open the bandage and blood spurted out.
“It didn’t bother me a bit because the pain was gone,” Royer said. “I didn’t care whether I lived or died.”
Medics put a tourniquet around his leg.
Then everything went black.
When Royer woke up, doctors told him they had given him nearly 9 quarts of blood in less than a month.
He was lucky to be alive.
Royer was honorably discharged on Aug. 14, 1945.
Months after, doctors told Royer to keep the ACE bandage on and stay off his leg. He would need to use crutches for the rest of his life. He refused. Royer spent months learning how to walk again.
He’s still walking today.
After Sunday’s ceremony, Louwana Hudson, the youngest of Royer’s four children, choked up as she talked about her dad. She will never forget the moment the Legion of Honor Medal was pinned to her father’s lapel.
“Every time I think about it I tear up,” Hudson said.
Royer, Hudson said, mows his neighbors’ lawns. When winter strikes, he takes his snowblower out to clear driveways.
The packed event, she added, says a lot about her dad.
After the ceremony, Royer pushed his wife’s wheelchair to the head table so they could eat. They’ve been married for 73 years. Along the way, they were stopped by family, strangers and church members who wanted a hug or handshake. He happily obliged.
Every once in a while, Royer said, someone will come up to him in Walmart to thank him for his service.
Royer enjoys working in his garden. He also still goes to Sunday School.
Bruce Royer, who shares the middle name Harold with his dad, said they couldn’t be more surprised.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Royer said after the ceremony, putting his hand over his heart. “It turned out wonderful.”
About a year ago, his father had handed him a stack of paperwork about the medals he was supposed to receive but never did. When his unit received the medals, Royer was still in the hospital.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Dad, why did you wait so long?” Bruce Royer said. “You’re 93 years old.”
Bruce Royer emailed copies of the paperwork to the French Consulate. Three months later, he received confirmation of delivery.
Months later, a FedEx package showed up on Royer’s front door.
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He asked his wife, “Did you order something?” She hadn’t — and neither had he. Royer assumed the delivery was to the wrong address. But the package was addressed to him. Inside, was a red box along with papers telling him he would be awarded the Legion of Honor.
He nearly fell over.
For Royer’s 94th birthday, Bruce Royer gave him a shadow box filled with the other medals Royer had earned but not received. One, set apart from the others, is the French Croix de Guerre, a military award for acts of heroism during combat. Royer has also received the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Ribbon with 3 Bronze Stars, the Good Conduct Medal and the Purple Heart.
But the Legion of Honor came as a surprise to everyone.
When the day finally came, he was all smiles. People packed the picnic shelter outside the Wayne Newton Post 346 American Legion, dedicated to the first Indiana soldier to die in WWII.
He hugged a boy excited to see him, shook hands of attendees and posed for pictures with them. He even signed a newspaper for one man.
Retired Air Force Brigadier General J. Stewart Goodwin, who was there to represent Gov. Eric Holcomb, asked the crowd to think “about the fact that the reason we have the freedoms that we have today are because of his generation. And because of the sacrifices they made.”
Bruce Royer also presented his dad with a France flag, folded into a display case.
Then, another surprise.
Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett declared Sept. 29 “Jimmie H. Royer Day” in Terre Haute, to which a member of Royer’s family cried out “oh my!”
The American Legion also gave Royer a parking plate sign, reserving his spot as a soldier wounded in combat, for him to hang in his driveway
And Royer gave an excited thumbs up when he was handed a pie.
Guillaume Lacroix, France’s Chicago-based consul general, represented President Macron and pinned the medal on Royer. He told the crowd that France and America share values of freedom, independence and dignity.
“We have gratitude for all the men and women who came to liberate us,” Lacroix told IndyStar after the ceremony. “They did what they had to do. They were not thinking, ‘Maybe 75 years later I will receive a decoration.’ They were doing their duty.”
Lacroix said there are two things people can do: Remember those who served and be thankful.
“You are a true American hero,” Lacroix said, “and you are a true French hero.”