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Arts & Culture

A World War II Unit Asks For An Honor

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. Now, we have the story of what Army historians after World War II called the best-performing infantry division in the entire European theater. Only a few of its veterans are still alive, and they're petitioning the army for an honor that somehow their division never received. It's called a Presidential Unit Citation. Jay Price of member station WUNC has the story.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The 30th Infantry Division was sent into Normandy right after D-Day. The National Guard outfit soon faced some of Germany's toughest units in a battle at the French town of Mortain. Ninety-four-year-old King Kenny was then a young private.

KING KENNY: The tanks, you could hear them during the night. You could hear the track and the squeak.

PRICE: His small anti-tank unit was ordered to block a key road that German attackers were determined to force their way through to stop the Allies' momentum.

KENNY: Custer and the Indians (laughter).

PRICE: The Germans had entire armored Panzer divisions with 300 tanks and other armored vehicles, 80,000 soldiers, many of them elite SS troops. The Americans were outnumbered almost 7 to 1.

KENNY: And a German tank fired. And he fired back and hit it. And it caught on fire and came down the hill. I saw another one poke his nose around a house up on this hill.

PRICE: Nearby, Tony Jaber, who is now 93, was with part of the 30th atop a hill that was key to controlling the area. His unit was surrounded, and supplies got so scarce that other Americans tried to send in medicine by artillery shell. At one point, Jaber watched as a German delegation under a white flag approached his commander.

TONY JABER: They were asking him to surrender. He told them, no, I'll surrender when every bayonet's broken in you bastards' bellies.

PRICE: Historian Robert Baumer wrote a book about the 30th called "Old Hickory" after the unit's nickname.

ROBERT BAUMER: The size of the attack on the 30th Division was replicated nowhere else during World War II.

PRICE: The battle went on for more than five days. In the end, the roadblock held, as did the rest of the American positions, including the hill. The outcome was devastating for the Germans. Baumer said Old Hickory found that out later when they captured the spokesman for the German army.

BAUMER: And he said that the German High Command knew that when they lost Mortain, they lost the homeland.

PRICE: The 30th went on to fight at the Battle of the Bulge and other key battles. After the war, the Pentagon started the process for the highest honor a unit can receive - a Presidential Unit Citation - but it stalled.

BAUMER: The paperwork fell through the cracks because the Army had so many other priorities at the time - getting the GI bill in place, getting people relocated.

PRICE: And when Old Hickory was disbanded after the war, that left no one to advocate for it. Until recently, when some of the aging veterans and North Carolina Guard leaders persuaded the Army to reboot the review process. Then, this week, without explanation, the Army told National Guard leaders there will be no citation. Hearing the news, King Kenney said it was a shame.

KENNY: They're all entitled to some recognition. Maybe we should try again at a higher level.

PRICE: They need to move quickly, if they do. More than 34,000 men served in that division at some point in World War II, but only a few hundred are left, nearly all in their 90s. The 30th just held its annual reunion. Only six members of one of the best fighting divisions in American history were able to come. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Raleigh, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK FRIEDLANDER'S "NIGHT WHITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.