The Greatest Generation

Published 7:52 am Monday, February 24, 2014

French Consul General Denis Barbet presents the prestigious Legion of Honor, his country’s highest decoration, to Joseph (Joe) Dickerson (left) of Murfreesboro during a Thursday afternoon ceremony at the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

French Consul General Denis Barbet presents the prestigious Legion of Honor, his country’s highest decoration, to Joseph (Joe) Dickerson (left) of Murfreesboro during a Thursday afternoon ceremony at the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

RALEIGH – They are known as America’s Greatest Generation.

Apparently, France thinks so as well.

In a ceremony conducted here Thursday in the old House Chambers of the historic North Carolina State Capitol, French Consul General Denis Barbet presented 14 North Carolinians with the Legion of Honor, the highest decoration awarded by that country.

Those men – a few barely able to walk due to physical ailments – all helped to liberate France from the clutches of Hitler’s Germany during World War II. Three of the 14 honorees hail from the Roanoke-Chowan area – Joseph (Joe) Dickerson and Richard (Dick) Hammel, both of Murfreesboro, and Carl Russell Britt of Milwaukee.

In Dickerson’s case, he’ll find a special place to display his newest honor, to go along with the four Purple Hearts he earned during World War II.

“It was a nice day and nice crowd; I thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Dickerson, who was injured four times in combat while serving with Company E of the Army’s 116th Infantry. “I’m glad to still be here to enjoy that honor. It’s very unique to be honored by a foreign country.”

Dickerson was a foreigner in the mid 1940’s as he was among the first wave to storm Omaha Beach during the famed Battle of Normandy (D-Day).

“I was wounded during the invasion; they patched me up and sent me right back, but I was wounded again,” he recalled.

Later, Dickerson fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

“We were surrounded by the Germans there until (General George) Patton and his troops arrived,” Dickerson said. “I was shot in the arm, patched up and sent back. Two days later I was seriously wounded in the head by a piece of shrapnel. I suffered a coma and woke up in a hospital in Paris two weeks later. That was it for me as they sent me home after that.”

Dickerson came back home to Murfreesboro where he later became one of the area’s most successful businessmen, operating the Western Auto store on Main Street.

Hammel was also part of D-Day, but rather than storming the beach, he dropped in as a member of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

“I had already seen some fighting in Italy before being sent to southern France for D-Day,” Hammel noted. “We dropped in there at 3 or 4 in the morning of June 6 (1944) and fought our way out. It took 90 days, all on foot, but we fought all the way back to the Italian border.”

Hammel, like so many of his comrades in arms, was a fresh face teenager (age 18 at that time). He was born in Kansas, raised near Charleston, WestVA and graduated from the University of West Virginia after the war. There he was commissioned as an officer and spent 20 more years in the Army, retiring as a Major.

Hammel wound up in Murfreesboro in 1976, encouraged by E. Frank Stephenson Jr. (the nephew of his brother’s wife) to restore one of the town’s historic homes. He and his wife spent the next four years restoring the Winborne House, where they still reside.

“I was highly honored to receive this Legion of Honor recognition,” Hammel remarked. “What made it so special was having my family there to witness this occasion. There were 12 of us total, to include children, grandchildren and my four-year-old great grandson.”

Britt – a Sergeant with the 274th Infantry Regiment, 70th Division during World War II where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge as well as other battles – was also surrounded by family, friends and Army buddies on Thursday.

“I will forever consider that day as one of the highlights of my life,” Britt stressed. “It was just a beautiful day; everything was perfect.”

After the war, Britt graduated from East Carolina Teacher’s College (now EastCarolinaUniversity). In 1950 he launched what turned out to be a 42-year career in education as a history teacher and later assistant principal at ColerainHigh School. He moved from there to Woodland High School as Principal. When Northampton County consolidated its public schools on the early 1960’s, Britt transferred to Northampton County High School and remained there over 20 years as assistant principal and history teacher. After retiring from public school, Britt spent the final six years of his educational career as Headmaster at NortheastAcademy.

“I want to thank the French Consul General and the citizens of France for remembering all of us who were honored. I was also pleased to see the Governor there. That completed the day,” Britt concluded.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory was among those to celebrate the acts of bravery from long ago by these 14 heroes.

“These men risked everything to aid our allies in WWII, and for this they will be forever remembered by both the United States and France,” said McCrory. “It is an honor to stand in the presence of these courageous men who have made us proud to be North Carolinians.”

Following the 90-minute ceremony, many of the honorees made their way to the front to have their photos made with the Governor.

“This man could be my father; he’s the same age of my father,” said McCrory as he wrapped his arms around Britt and gave him a hug.

Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor is the highest honor in France. It recognizes eminent services to the French Republic. Recipients of this honor are designated by the President of the Republic, François Hollande.

Other than the local trio of men, the following veterans were also recognized for their courage:

George F. Tyson Jr, from Mebane, NC (Ret. Colonel, L Company, 399th Infantry Regiment, 100th Infantry Division);

John Salop from Charlotte (Commander, USS Charles F. Hughes);

Allen D. Evans from Chapel Hill (Staff Sergeant, Headquarters Battery, 76th Field Artillery Battalion);

Gerald M. Anderson from Pinehurst (Sergeant, 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division);

Jessie O. Bowman from GraniteFalls (Sergeant, 345th Regiment, 87th Infantry Division);

Donald F. Johnston from Cary (Sergeant, Company L, 410th Infantry Regiment, 103rd Division);

Joseph H. Collie from Durham (Corporal, Company B, 397th Infantry);

James W. Toffton from Rocky Mount (Corporal, 555th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion)

Norwood McKoy from Wilmington (Technician 5th Grade, 192nd Chemical Deploy Company);

Paul E. Haney from Reidsville (Private First Class, 80th Cavalry Reconnaissance troop); and

James F. Sansom from Cary (Private First Class, 1560th Service Command Unit Station Complement).


About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

email author More by Cal