By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
His sons never heard much of his story until recently. He tried to forget much of it himself. It's not something easily forgotten, though, and when he was contacted by the French Legion of Honor committee he was surprised, to say the least.
Louis “Jack” Baldwin of Double Springs worked as the lead man on the largest chemical furnace at the Fairfield Allied Chemical Corporation for 31 years. He retired in 1982. He is now 91 years old, and sharp as a tack.
But before that the unassuming man in the hard hat lived another kind of life…
At the age of 20, Baldwin said he was working for U.S. Steele making 45 cents an hour. “The next year they bombed Pearl Harbor and I joined the Army,” Baldwin reminisced. He was stationed in Wisconsin in weather as low as 20 degrees below zero. It was there that he met his lifelong friend, James Laughlin. They would be together through some harrowing experiences over the course of the war.
1943 found them in Belfast, Ireland, and later in Wales. “We’d been training for two years but we didn’t know what for,” he explained. “One day we were shipped out and they handed us a little book in French, that’s when we knew where we were going.”
Their next stop went down in history. Baldwin found himself among the thousands of men on one of the six beachheads where American soldiers landed over the next long hours. He just happened to be in the group who landed on “Bloody” Omaha Beach. “It was nighttime, but they had everything lit up like daylight,” he said. “We had to be able to see what we were doing.”
“We took the 105 field pieces onshore to support the infantrymen,” Baldwin explained.
“My job on that beach was to operate a 30-caliber machine gun.”
Baldwin went on to say that Omaha Beach was the most fortified place in World War II. “The Bedford Boys from Maryland went in first, then the Rangers and the 101st Airborne Division, then us.”
His division was the 2nd Infantry Division. “That division came out of World War I, they called us the ‘Old Indian Head’ division,” said Baldwin.
The five divisions that landed on Omaha Beach that day were the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th and 29th Divisions, plus other Allied Forces.
There were between nine and eleven thousand lives lost as that battle moved inland. “Only one in seven of our boys lived,” said Baldwin. “There were less than a million of us. 700 died every day.”
Baldwin and his fellow soldiers fought in five of the six major battles in France. “We didn’t realize what we were doing at the time,” he said. “That front was 160 miles long and we only knew what was going on right in front of us.”
They were there 105 days without a break. “It was the longest drive without a break in the war,” he said. They were outside the entire time. They received shots and vitamins in their food to keep them going. They ate K-Rations and C-Rations and whatever else was available. He and his buddies shaved and bathed out of their helmets.
“One hundred and five days might not sound like a long time,” he said. “But it is when you are outside.”
“Hitler had told his men that they would be fine, that in 40 days they would be back to pick them up, but we had that place cleaned up in 39 days taking more than 20,000 prisoners of war,” said Baldwin.
“All they would say when we captured them was, ‘hungry’ or ‘home’. It was really sad.”
When it was finally over, Baldwin was sent to Camp Pittsburg in the South of France, where he stayed until he was shipped home in October of 1945. The commander of that camp was Major Dick Winters. “Later they made a movie called ‘Band of Brothers’,” said Baldwin. “It was made by Major Winters.”
Baldwin was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to New Orleans to visit the World War II Museum there when the movie premiered and actually got to meet Tom Hanks, Mickey Rooney and Tom Brokaw.
He watched a few other movies, but says that “Band of Brothers” and “The Longest Day” came closest to capturing what really happened.
While in the Army, Baldwin became the father of his first child, a son named Louis Ray. “I had only gotten to see my baby and my wife once while I was in the service those three years,” he said.
He shipped home Oct. 16, 1945. He walked into the bus station in Birmingham in the middle of the night. “There she was, the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. We just hugged each other for the longest time,” he said.
“She is still beautiful,” he said of his wife, Jeanette (Warnick) who was once Miss Magic City.
He stayed home with them for a short time, even though he could have collected his pay for a year. “I had to go back to work,” he said. “People might not realize that we all brought a lot of that home with us,” he said softly. “We live that every day of our lives, so I went back to work to forget.”
He was doing pretty well at putting the scenes of the war out of his head until he got that phone call from the French Legion people.
“They wanted my records to verify that I was there,” he said. His old Army buddy, James Laughlin’s grandson, had gotten word that there would be 12 names submitted for the honor. He submitted his grandfather’s name as well as Baldwin’s.
After many letters and phonecalls, Baldwin got a call from the French Ambassador himself. He had been chosen to receive the highest honor bestowed by the French government. He was to present himself for decoration Sept. 27, 2012.
He was there with bells on. There was standing room only in the Lennox Building in Atlanta, where the ceremony was held.
“Mr. Baldwin received the Legion of Honor in the rank of ‘Knight’. This is France's highest honorific distinction, regardless of the nature of the merit” explained Attaché to the Consulate General of France in Atlanta, Claire Collobert Angelle. “Indeed, the Legion of Honor is not strictly a military honor and can be awarded to civilians as well.
“Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor is the highest honor in France. It recognizes eminent services to the French Republic,” said Angelle. “Recipients of this honor are designated by the President of the Republic.”
Baldwin’s youngest son, Larry, was among those present. With tears in his eyes he watched as the man who hadn’t told him much about the story of that war was decorated with a medal designed by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte himself.
“That was some honor,” said the younger Baldwin, his voice breaking at the memory.
For his father, there was another honor in addition to this on his wall with the multitude of other medals and citations that fill his living room in Double Springs, Alabama.
“My oldest son, Louis Ray, was in the Coast Guard,” he said proudly. “He was chosen to be an honor guard at President Kennedy’s funeral. That was really an honor.”
Last Friday, Baldwin was honored to speak at the Double Springs High School assembly in honor of the veterans of past wars. “I’ve worked all my life in the best country in the world,” he said. “It’s still the best country in the world, and we fought to make it so.”
Baldwin’s list of metals include the following;
Medals from former Alabama Governor Fob James
Presidential citations from President Roosevelt to his entire unit
Five Bronze Battle Stars
An individual Bronze Star
A Silver Star
A Purple Heart
Combat Infantryman badge with wreath and rifle
Good Conduct Medal
Carbine, MI Rifle and 30-Caliber Machine Gun Expert Marksmanship Medal
Many occupational ribbons and a ribbon for being present when U.S. General George Patton came through Italy.