PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — On June 20, 1944, just four days after his 19th birthday, Eugene E. Sawyer was embroiled in World War II, far away from birthday cake and a party with family and friends in Houlton.
Sawyer, a member of the U.S. Army’s 9th Infantry Division, 47th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, was in Normandy, participating in the Allied forces’ retaking of the Cotentin, also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula. A machine gunner in H Company, Sawyer soon became involved in the infamous “hedgerow fighting” around St-Lo, France.
“It was the dead of night, around 3 a.m.,” the now 85-year-old Presque Isle resident recalled Sunday, sitting in his apartment surrounded by personal war memorabilia. “We couldn’t see a thing.”
Crowded into a foxhole with five other people, Sawyer said he and the other men decided to look around and find out where they were. It was, he acknowledged Monday, a big mistake.
“We were right on top of a tank,” he said. “It was so dark and the tank was camouflaged so well that we didn’t see it until it started firing. They shot us point-blank.”
Sawyer suffered shrapnel wounds in his left shoulder, an injury that led to his first medal, a Purple Heart. By the time his military career was over, he had accumulated 13 more medals.
Sawyer thought that the medal count was final — until Sunday evening.
During a crowded ceremony at the Presque Isle Elks Club, Sawyer was awarded the Legion d’honneur medal, the highest honor bestowed by France. The accolade was given in recognition of his service in the expulsion of German forces from France during World War II. Since their inception in 1802, several hundred Legion of Honor medals have been awarded to Americans.
Surrounded by family and friends, fellow members of the Presque Isle Elks Club and a number of military veterans, Sawyer was given the medal by Christopher Guilhou, consul general of France.
“It really meant a lot to me,” Sawyer said Monday. “When I found out I qualified for the medal, I didn’t know it was so important. I thought they’d just mail it to me, but they soon let me know it wasn’t just something they put in the mail.”
Ernest Lovely, the Presque Isle Elks Club’s exalted ruler, said Monday that he arranged to have Sawyer’s dedication ceremony held at the Main Street facility. Sawyer has been a member of the club for 40 years.
“It has been a long time coming,” Lovely said of the awarding of the medal. “Gene is a very proud and very quiet man, and he’s been very active in this club and with the American Legion. We had about 100 people here, and it was really great to see.”
Brig. Gen. Brent Boyles, assistant adjutant general for the Maine Army National Guard, spoke at the ceremony, and members of the state’s congressional delegation also sent written remarks that were read at the event. Gov. John Baldacci also sent Sawyer a letter of congratulations.
After his hospitalization and recuperation from the shrapnel wounds, Sawyer rejoined his platoon and company. Sawyer said he is not sure what happened to the others wounded by the tank, but said that he “never saw them again.”
“I didn’t want to go back to battle,” he said. “Who would after they got shot? But they sent me back.”
He said he was in the first battalion to cross the Rhine River into Germany at the famed bridge at Remagen.
Sawyer served with the Army until the end of the war. For his gallantry in combat during the European theater campaign, Sawyer received two Bronze Stars, in addition to the Purple Heart and other awards.
He came back to the States and went to work, only to re-enlist so he could serve during the Korean War. During that war he lost his best friend and fellow Aroostook County native, Army Pvt. Rex Nason, who was 23 when he was killed in battle in 1951. Sawyer still keeps Nason’s official military portrait on a shelf in his home, right next to his own.
He thought of making a career of the military, but ended up returning to The County. He married and remained with his wife, Eula, until her death five years ago. He thinks of war and the things that he saw in battle “all the time.”
“I still wake up in the middle of the night,” said Sawyer. “I still have nightmares sometimes.”
Sawyer is not the first Mainer to receive the Legion d’ honneur. Guilhou was in Maine in July to present the award to Elvert “Buck” Pooler. The Sanford resident received the award in recognition of his heroism and his part in the liberation of the country in 1944.
Lovely said that he didn’t expect to see so many people come to the Elks Club for an event on a Sunday evening. When asked why he thought so many people attended, Lovely said the answer was simple.
“They came because it was for Gene Sawyer,” he said Monday. “He’s quite a guy.”