France’s highest order of merit for military and civil accomplishments will be bestowed on a Bartholomew County man next month.
When the Legion of Honor is presented in Kansas City, Charles B. “Red” Whittington will join the ranks of distinguished Americans such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Colin Powell to receive the prestigious award. The 95-year-old World War II veteran is scheduled to be decorated as a Knight of the French National Order of the Legion of Honor on Sept. 9.
American veterans who risked their lives during World War II and who fought on French territory qualify for the honor, according to the French embassy in Washington, D.C. But recipients must have fought in one of the four main campaigns of the Liberation of France: Normandy, Provence, Ardennes or Northern France, the embassy’s website states.
Whittington served in France in late 1944 as a member of the 377th Infantry Regiment, 95th Infantry Division. After nearly five months of fighting, the division gained control of Maizières-les-Metz, better known as the city of Metz, on Nov. 21, 1944. But it was a costly victory for the division that resulted in 1,128 killed in action, 4,783 wounded, 391 missing in action and 68 prisoners of war.
After sustaining a number of minor wounds over a three-week period, Whittington was seriously injured by artillery shrapnel that brought his combat days to an end. He spent the next nine months in hospitals in England and stateside before he was allowed to return to Bartholomew County.
Together with his wife, the late Glenna Whittington, he established a degree of financial independence through both property development and agribusiness. The father of three continued to serve his community as a school bus driver and rural mail carrier until his 1984 retirement.
While keeping most of his wartime experiences to himself, Whittington has been honored with a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the European Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, Good Conduct Medal and Victory Medal. But he considers his fellow surviving military comrades the most precious reminders of that unique period of his life.
“I owe my life to them,” Whittington said in a 2015 interview.
That attitude exemplifies the World War II veteran’s conviction that the highest honors should be reserved for those who made the ultimate sacrifice in every military conflict, said granddaughter Kristen Whittington, who serves on the 95th Association Foundation board of directors. Nevertheless, the Legion of Honor is a unique honor for her grandfather because it’s the highest recognition from another country, she said.
After attending division reunions for several decades, Whittington made the first of three trips back to Metz, located in the northeast region of Lorraine, in 1994. He has used those trips to pay respect to fallen comrades with visits to the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial near Saint-Avold. It is Europe’s largest U.S. World War II military cemetery, containing the graves of 10,489 American soldiers.
On June 20, 2014, Whittington and other survivors of his division gathered in Columbus to celebrate the dedication of a bridge in their honor: The Iron Men of Metz Memorial Bridge across Clifty Creek on U.S. 31. Five months later, the Bartholomew County native made what he said would be his last trip to France, where he also visited the the Normandy American Cemetery and the Omaha Beach Memorial, more than 300 miles west of Metz.
Whittington was honored at the American Legion in Columbus on Aug. 7, the 75th anniversary of his enlistment. A copy of the letter from the French consul to Whittington, notifying him that approval had been given for this award, and a photo of the Legion of Honor medal, were made available so that people could see them.
During the event, state Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, represented Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in declaring Whittington as a distinguished member of the Circle of Corydon. Honoring the first state capital of Indiana, the Circle of Corydon recognizes Whittington for having “demonstrated, in life and in service to the people of the state of Indiana, the qualities exemplified by our state’s greatest citizens.”
Others in attendance during the Aug. 7 recognition included Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop and American Legion District Commander William A. Scharold.