Richard Jackson (third in top row) poses with his fellow U.S. Army 100th Infantry Division members in France in 1944.
Courtesy photo
Richard Jackson (third in top row) poses with his fellow U.S. Army 100th Infantry Division members in France in 1944.

Highest honors

Townshend veteran Richard Jackson, 100, will receive the Légion d’honneur for his service in World War II

TOWNSHEND-Local veteran Richard Jackson's World War II stint in Europe was 80 years ago and 3,500 miles away.

And yet, it's still on the top of his mind.

"I became the gunner on a mortar squad, which by definition is not on the front line and instead 100 yards behind, so I felt blessed," Jackson said in a recent interview. "But of course, whenever you got shelled, you knew the potential of getting hit."

Jackson, who celebrated his 100th birthday last fall, figured the rest of the world had long moved past such memories. Then the man known to family and friends as Dick learned he's about to receive France's highest honor, the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor), for the military service that sparked them.

In recent years, France has sought out surviving U.S. veterans of World War II who fought to liberate the country from the Germans to award them the Legion of Honor.

"This award testifies to France's high esteem for your merits and accomplishments," Consul General Mustafa Soykurt wrote to Jackson in a letter. "In particular, it is a sign of France's infinite gratitude and appreciation for your personal and precious contribution to the United States' decisive role in the liberation of our country during World War II."

The honor was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize individuals for military or civilian contributions. Although it's usually given to French citizens, it has been granted to such Americans as telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and General Colin Powell.

Enter Karsten Olsen, a seventh grader at Dorset's Long Trail School. The 13-year-old first met Jackson at the Townshend senior residence where his paternal grandfather also lived. The student, who has dual U.S. and French citizenship, then learned the centenarian had fought in the U.S. Army's 100th Infantry Division that liberated the northeastern French homeland of Olsen's maternal family.

The 100th Infantry Division, known as the "Sons of Bitche," liberated the fortified town of Bitche and the surrounding villages in France during some of the fiercest battles of World War II. Jackson was awarded two Bronze Stars by the Army for his heroism during these pivotal battles.

There was also a personal connection for Olsen, whose grandparents live in one of the villages liberated by Jackson and other members of the 100th Infantry.

Olsen, writing to French officials in their shared language, suggested they add their own accolades for the soldier's overall service.

"Je pense qu'il est essentiel que nous reconnaissions Dick Jackson," Olsen told them of his belief that "I think it is essential that we recognize Dick Jackson."

Jackson still remembers making his way to the front line and feeling the rising tension.

"Unfortunately, you get used to it," the veteran said. "That's the trouble. I think that's why we stay at war."

Jackson graduated from high school just before the U.S. joined the fight in 1941, and after his honorable discharge went on to earn master's and doctoral degrees in food technology from the University of Massachusetts. Hired by the Campbell Soup Company of Camden, New Jersey, he helped develop such products as frozen dinners and dry soup mix.

Moving to Vermont upon his retirement in 1978, Jackson became a member of the Townshend Selectboard and an assistant town clerk and lister. Ask for an interview today, and the centenarian will check his calendar before figuring out how to fit you in between all his recreational activities.

"Keep moving," Jackson said of his secret to a long life. "And tell your kids and grandkids to look after their health. That's one thing my dad did for me."

The French consul general is set to recognize Jackson on May 29 at a noon ceremony at the Valley Cares assisted living complex in Townshend.

The recipient can't say whether he's the only member of his unit still alive. But eyeing an old photograph of the 100th Infantry Division's 399th regiment, he knows he won't be accepting the award alone.

"This accomplishment was not possible by just one man," Jackson said. "My buddies were critical. This honor is in recognition of all of them."

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VTDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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