The story of Richard Mann, the local WWII vet who just received France’s highest military honor for his role on D-Day | MyWindsorNow.com

The story of Richard Mann, the local WWII vet who just received France’s highest military honor for his role on D-Day

Tommy Wood
twood@greeleytribune.com

Richard Mann will tell you he doesn't deserve this. Why should he be here, at the Windsor Readiness Center of the Colorado National Guard, on this sunny Wednesday afternoon in 2017, receiving the French Legion of Honor for his service in World War II, when so many of his comrades never had the chance to live to the age of 96?

It's not fair. But nothing in war is fair. So Mann accepted the highest military honor France can bestow for all the men who couldn't.

"Those guys who gave their lives earned it," said Mann, who lives in Milliken. "The only reason I'm in the deal is I'm a survivor."

In all, five local veterans of WWII were honored Wednesday, their medals presented by Honorary French Consul General Jeffrey Richards. The ceremony was the result of a continuous effort by the French government to track down and honor American soldiers who fought to liberate France from the Nazis.

“Those guys who gave their lives earned it.

— Richard Mann, World War II veteran

Richards waxed about the "special relationship" between France and the United States; France helped the U.S. win its independence from Britain nearly 250 years ago, and in the 20th century, the U.S. twice helped save France from German invasion.

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The consul general made his way down the line of honorees, pinning the medals to their chests, shaking their hands and hugging them. Mann was second-to-last. He struggled to his feet, pushing himself up with his cane, but he stood tall.

"In the name of the president of the Republic of France and its people, I name you a knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honor," Richards spoke in French.

Mann responded emphatically: "Merci beaucoup!"

Mann graduated from Greeley High School — now Greeley Central — and attended the Colorado College of Education and Colorado A&M University, which are now the University of Northern Colorado and Colorado State University. He enlisted in the U.S. Army reserves in 1942 and started active duty in May 1943. He'd never been on a train, "never been anywhere" before he shipped out to England as part of the 111th Field Artillery Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. There, he trained for the Western allies' decisive move against the Nazi war machine: the invasion of France and the opening of a western front in Europe to aid the Soviet Union's advances in the east.

The beaches of Normandy, on the northwest coast, were chosen as the spot for the invasion of France, and after several delays the landings took place at 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944 — D-Day.

The 29th Infantry led the assault on a crescent-shaped section of beach designated "Omaha." None of the boys of the 29th Infantry had seen combat before, and little about the landings went according to plan. Wind and rough seas took the landing craft off-course. Tanks were too heavy to float in the channel and only five of the 29th Infantry's 32 tanks made it to shore. And the first attack waves were utterly slaughtered.

Casualties rapidly climbed above 2,000. The situation was so bad Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, in command of the Omaha landing, considered calling it off and evacuating the survivors.

"The cannon fodder is made up of young men who had maybe just graduated from high school, with little training," Mann said, who was only in his early 20s at the time. "They didn't know what to expect from the world. So many of those high school guys didn't survive because they hadn't lived yet, and they didn't get a chance to. There was a bullet waiting for everyone curious enough to try to see the world."

Mann was in the second assault wave, 30 minutes after the first. He arrived to a scene of total chaos and carnage. Bodies floated in the water like driftwood. That's when he made the decision that kept him sane — and perhaps alive.

"One look was enough," Mann said. "I shut it out. I guess that's how I got through the war. I could see it, but it was blocked out of my mind."

Few soldiers could find their commanding officers or locate their objectives. They just scrambled forward and tried to stay alive. Mann dove under a truck for cover. A shell landed nearby. The shock was so powerful he thought he'd been hit. He reached up to touch his face and felt a warm liquid he was sure was blood. Then he looked at his hand and realized he was covered in grease from the truck.

He was lucky. The commanding officer of his 111th Artillery was killed almost as soon as they landed. Mann watched a man rigging a cannon get his arm torn off by a shell and bleed out.

But by noon, the Nazis started to run out of ammunition, and the Americans managed to organize enough to advance off the beach. Twenty thousand reinforcements landed the next day.

Mann was reassigned as a survey specialist. The army didn't have detailed maps, so Mann and his comrades would scout territory and relay what they saw to the gunners. He did this as the Allies advanced through France and Belgium, where he fought near Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. Mann was reassigned again as a communications specialist, the job he held on May 8, 1945, when the Nazis surrendered. Mann had fought his way to Borheim, Germany, by that point, and he was finally going home.

He returned to CSU and completed a degree in animal husbandry, then spent five years working for the Department of Veterans' Affairs, teaching veterans agriculture. Along the way he married Laurilla Jane York, with whom he had seven children. Mann worked as a chemist for the Great Western Sugar Company for 26 years and was the mayor of Milliken from 1958-70.

When the catastrophic 2013 floods came, that was the closest thing Mann had seen to the devastation in Europe, where six years of war wiped entire towns off the map.

"When we were done shooting things up, there weren't any livable houses left," Mann said. "If I was to wind it all up I would say I'm a survivor of the war and the 2013 flood."

Mann went back to Normandy once, in the early 1990s, around the 50th anniversary of the invasion. He intentionally avoided the festivities and the reunions and the big-shots who came for that. Richard Mann went alone.

One morning, he hired a local to take him down to Omaha beach at 6:30 a.m., the time the first troops emerged from their landing crafts into a world of smoke and fire and blood. But this time, there were no bodies, no machine guns, no exploding shells. The detritus of war had been cleared away. It was just a nice beach.

— James Redmond contributed to this article.

— Tommy Wood covers education for The Tribune. You can reach him at (970) 392-4470, twood@greeleytribune.com or on Twitter @woodstein72.

About the Legion of Honor

The Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur — or National Order of the Legion of Honor — is the highest honor the French military can bestow, the equivalent of the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. It was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. The French had abolished the traditional orders of chivalry during the French Revolution because their ranks were closed to the common people. Napoleon wanted to institute a new chivalric order based on merit, not nobility, to encourage civic and military achievement in all classes of French society.

“You call these baubles,” Napoleon said. “Well, it is with baubles that men are led.”

Other American WWII veterans recognized

Four other men also received the Legion of Honor on Wednesday:

» Capt. Oliver L. Bashor, U.S. Army Air Corps.

» Cmdr. Sgt. Maj. Samuel Lesser, U.S. Army.

» Sgt. LeMoyne Anderson, U.S. Army.

» Pfc. Joe B. Hoberman, U.S. Army.

War around the world

At the time Richard Mann stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the war had turned decisively in the Allies’ favor. The Soviet Union was about to launch Operation Bagration, a massive offensive that annihilated the Nazi Army Group Centre; the Soviets drove the Nazis from Poland and Yugoslavia and by the end of 1944 had nearly liberated Hungary. The Western allies invaded Sicily, then mainland Italy, and captured Rome two days before D-Day, knocking the Nazis’ biggest European ally out of the war. The U.S. Navy had seriously reduced its Japanese counterpart and the Marines were hopping from island to island, preparing an invasion of the Philippines and coming ever closer to the Japanese mainland.

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