PERU — Napoleon “Nap” Light remembers his time overseas in World War II vividly.
The remarkably energetic 90-year-old is able to recall practically every month, year and location of his time in the 30th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army National Guard from 1942 to 1945.
His service earned him a prestigious award from the French Consulate in New York City earlier this month at the French High School of New York.
The President of the French Republic appointed Light and 19 others as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
“They were from all over the country and from different branches of the service,” Light said. “This was 68 years ago. That’s a long time. There aren’t too many of us left.”
Although he has received many awards for his military service, many of which decorate the room he renovated in the basement of his Peru home, this one came as a surprise.
“I never expected it,” he said. The letter informing Light of his invitation to the ceremony arrived in September.
Light’s wife, Theresa, reminded him that, although the trip by plane from Burlington to New York would be costly, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“She said, ‘Forget it. We only go through here once. Go for it.’”
Keith Herkalo, of Plattsburgh, Light’s nephew, accompanied him on the trip, and his daughter, Lori, flew in from Chicago to attend the ceremony.
The event, which impressed Light, was held in the school’s auditorium.
“After the ceremony, the entire audience stood there and applauded for quite a while,” Light said.
Clearly, they shared in the appreciation for the awardees’ courage and sacrifice that Bertrand Lortholary, consul general of France, described in his invitation letter to Light.
“This prestigious distinction underlines the deep appreciation and gratitude of the French people for your contribution to the liberation of our country during World War II. We will never forget the commitment of American heroes like you to whom France owes so much,” Bertrand wrote.
Light’s experience in the Army started when he was drafted soon after he returned home from his first semester at Albany Business College in 1942. He was just 20 years old.
He traveled to various bases for training in New York, Florida, Tennessee, Indiana and Massachusetts. Then, in January 1944, Light, with 5,000 other troops, boarded one of three luxury liners converted for military use bound for England.
The journey took ten days and Light was ill for most of the trip with seasickness.
“I was happy to put my feet on the ground in Liverpool,” he said, laughing.
From there, a few days after D-day in June of 1944, he took a boat with 40 other troops to Normandy. The vessel went as close to shore as possible, where the water was about four feet deep, Light said, and the troops jumped out and waded to shore.
The 30th Infantry’s major campaigns continued from there, east into Northern France, then to the Rhineland, where Light crossed the Rhine River into Germany.
The American and British troops were joined by Russian forces and they all continued to push their way into Germany from their position about 35 miles east of the Elbe River, Light said.
“When the war ended, their (Germany’s) generals surrendered to us and our division general was with them,” he said.
Then Light went back home.
“It only took five days and it was calm and I wasn’t seasick,” he said.
After Japan surrendered following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war was over and Light was honorably discharged.
“It was crazy for five years after the war. People were celebrating. It was done.”
Light moved on, graduating from Champlain College in 1952. Then he worked for 25 years as a licensed public accountant, retiring in the early 1980s. Since then, he has enjoyed playing golf at Bluff Point Golf Resort in Plattsburgh and spending time with his family and friends in the area.
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