SHINNSTON, West Virginia — As a lifelong resident of Shinnston, John Belcastro has served his community in various ways, whether working in the local coal mines or serving in American Legion Post 31 and VFW Post 573.
But Belcastro's service extends far beyond the local community, having served his country in the 10th Armored Division, 90th Calvary Reconnaissance Squadron, during World War II, for which he was named a "Chevalier" of the Legion of Honor by the French government.
"It's really something when a foreign country is giving you the highest medal. It shows their appreciation," Belcastro said.
Belcastro and his fellow servicemen helped liberate France during World War II, landing in Cherbourg in September 1944.
"We were the first unit in Bastogne. From there we went into Germany, and from Germany we went into Austria," Belcastro said. "We were the most decorated armored division in World War II."
Traveling through towns in France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and Austria, the 10th Armored Division played a key role in Allied victory, Belcastro said.
"We captured 56,000 German troops, we captured ... Field Marshal Wilhelm List, we liberated a prison camp and we captured 650 towns and cities in Germany," he said.
Belcastro and the 10th Armored Division were in Bavaria when the war ended May 8, 1945, and a week later, Belcastro and the other soldiers were instructed to load up the guns for a secret mission.
"We had 6-by-6 trucks, and we were going through the little towns," Belcastro said. "We picked up 118 German scientists, women and men. What the secret was about was the Russians were coming to kidnap them because they were all scientists."
Those scientists, including Wernher von Braun, then came to the United States, he said.
After traveling into Italy with his lieutenant, Belcastro then left the Azores aboard the USS Enterprise.
"It was a flat-top with American planes, and they were the first one engaged with the Japanese," he said. "Coming home on the USS Enterprise, the captain turned and said, 'Any of you soldiers like to come up on the bridge?' I was one of the first ones, and the captain asked if I'd like to steer."
The Enterprise landed at Staten Island, and Belcastro was then discharged from Fort George Meade in Maryland before returning home to his wife Sylvia.
"I came home, and my job was waiting for me," Belcastro said. "We got married in 1947, and we've been married 68 years."
Living in the same house they built in 1949, the Belcastros have three children, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, he said.
"We're blessed that we have a good family," Sylvia Belcastro said. "We really are blessed."
The entire Belcastro family traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Legion of Honor award ceremony.
"I had all the butterflies in my stomach," Sylvia Belcastro said. "I was something great, really and truly something great. It doesn't happen every day to just anyone."
Over the past 68 years, Sylvia Belcastro has heard most of her husband's stories of the war.
"I've heard them over and over, and there's a lot of people who come here — young people who want to hear his stories," she said.
Belcastro's many awards and souvenirs help to intrigue their interests further, Sylvia Belcastro said.
"There's hardly anything that's said about World War II," she said. "It's always the old wars like the Civil War, and I think that's sad because I think they should teach that in school and learn more about World War II."
John Belcastro has a long list of honors, beginning with he and his brother Jimmy as the first set of twins born in Shinnston in 1922, to being awarded the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, President Unit Citation and the French FourragÃ¨re.
He since has been entered into the Lincoln High School Hall of Fame, and his hometown has certainly showed their pride and support, particularly with the town's new bridge, Belcastro said.
"They were going to name it after me," he said. "I said, 'No, let's name it Veterans Memorial.'"
On June 6, 2013, 16 World War II veterans were honored as Knights of the Legion of Honor at the World War II monument in Washington, D.C., with Belcastro as the only West Virginian.
"The French president gave all (of) these heroes that (award), which is the highest French medal," he said. "It's the highest Legion of Honor."
Information from: The Exponent Telegram, http://www.theet.com