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Sixty years after nomination, veteran gets Silver Star at WWII memorial
Sixty years after nomination, veteran gets Silver Star at WWII memorial
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Army News Service, May 26, 2004) As a lieutenant with the French Resistance, Michel Thomas battled tyranny alongside American troops as an attached member of the 45th Infantry Division in World War II.
Thomas was nominated for the Silver Star in 1944. Now 90, he finally has it.
Former Sen. Robert Dole and Sen. John Warner, both WWII veterans, presented Thomas with the Army’s third-highest award for combat valor at the National World War II Memorial May 25.
"It’s taken 60 years," Dole noted of the medal and official recognition of Thomas’ contributions to the allied victory. "I’m honored to be in his presence."
The private ceremony also included Thomas’ adult children, Micheline and Gurion; WWII comrades Theodore Kraus and Bedford Groves; and French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte.
Thomas, whose family was killed by Nazis at Auschwitz, survived two years of slave labor and deportation camps in Vichy, France, before joining the French Forces of the Interior, Marquis Commando Group. He fought with them for two years before being attached to the Army’s 1st Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment of the 45th ID.
From August to September 1944, Thomas led reconnaissance patrols into enemy territory – sometimes three a day and sometimes alone, without regard for his own safety – to get information to help allied forces, the award citation said.
"Lt. Thomas was instrumental in capturing many enemy prisoners whom he personally interrogated and obtained much vital information,’’ said Dole, reading the citation. "His fluent knowledge of various languages was beneficial in interrogating enemy prisoners and capturing slave laborers and French civilians."
Levitte thanked Thomas for his service, as well as the United States.
"From the bottom of my heart, I thank you," the ambassador said. "The American people saved France twice. We will never forget."
Thomas expressed gratitude in return, not just to Levitte, but also to the senators, his comrades and others whose work led to the medal presentation, such as Alex Kline, a San Francisco private investigator, and Robert Wolfe, a retired senior archivist with the U.S. National Archives. Sen. John McCain, who couldn’t attend because of scheduling conflicts, and U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney acted on Thomas’ behalf by asking the Army to revisit the award recommendation in September 2003.
"It is with great pride that I stand here with you today, and with our fellow comrades in that worthy battle to defend both freedom and the sanctity of human life,’’ Thomas said, reading his prepared remarks. "I am deeply moved and humbled by this gesture from each of you, and immensely honored to receive this recognition from the United States of America. Thank you."
Afterwards, Thomas said he was deeply moved by receiving the medal, especially at the memorial, and with all of the people who traveled to witness the presentation.
Kraus, who witnessed many of Thomas’ deeds as a Counter Intelligence Corps agent and commander, came from Connecticut for the ceremony. He was elated to see his friend honored after all this time.
"I’ve had tears in my eyes all day," Kraus said. "It’s the culmination of a great effort by many people."
Gurion Thomas said that while his father has shared the stories of his service over the years, he never held any bitterness or regret that the Silver Star nomination didn’t move forward, until now.
"He did not fight for medals, that’s why he didn’t pursue it,’’ said Gurion Thomas. "He felt that fighting with the U.S. forces was honor enough. He’s always said the American Army is the best fighting force in the world and he was honored to serve with them."
Momentum for the award started building about two years ago, after a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about Thomas’ biography, "Test of Courage," by Christopher Robbins. The book recounts a number of incredible feats by Thomas: his 1943 escape from Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon, and his later testimony against Barbie in his 1987 war crimes trial; and his participation in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, where Thomas interrogated and photographed workers with then-Lt. Col. Wilson Gibson, who died in 1947 in New Orleans.
Robbins also described Thomas following a truck convoy to a paper mill near Munich in May 1945, where he prevented the Nazi Party’s worldwide membership card file and other Third Reich documents from being destroyed; and how, in 1946, Thomas and Kraus together captured Gustav Knittel, a notorious war criminal who was eventually convicted for his role in the Malmedy massacre of American prisoners of war at the Battle of the Bulge.
Thomas, and many others, believed the Times’ article attacked his reputation by questioning the credibility of his accounts. That’s when Kline, the private investigator, got involved. Although Thomas had many documents to back up his claims, Kline’s research unearthed more and led to Wolfe, who examined the documents Thomas still had in his possession and verified their authenticity. Wolfe also wrote a paper that described how Thomas was responsible for saving the documents, which were instrumental in the Nuremberg war crimes trials and became the centerpiece of the Berlin Document Center.
Wolfe said he and others knew a CIC agent save the records from being destroyed, but the agent’s identity was a mystery until he was asked to verify Thomas’ account. Wolfe said he made it a point not to meet or speak to Thomas, who was a stranger to him, until the day Thomas delivered the documents he still had possession of.
"One of the documents had Heinrich Himmler’s signature,’’ Wolfe said, referring to the Nazi general who headed Adolph Hitler’s secret police. "I ran my fingers over it and the raised signature told me it was original. I looked at Michel and said ‘You’re the guy.’"
The two have since become friends. Any suggestion that Thomas lied or exaggerated about his history makes Wolfe bristle.
"He did a job few of us did, or could have done," said Wolfe, also a WWII veteran. "And I’m a twice-wounded infantryman."
Thomas sued the Times and the reporter who wrote the "Larger Than Life" article for libel, but a judge dismissed the suit before it went to trial, ruling that the article was more of a commentary piece than a hard news story, and protected by the First Amendment since Thomas was a public figure.
The Silver Star and all of the ceremony surrounding it is vindication for his father, Gurion Thomas said.
"To be honored finally by the U.S. government and military means a lot right now,’’ he said.
Kline agreed. After three years of working to repair Thomas’ reputation and getting congressional leaders involved in the medal pursuit, Kline felt exhilarated as he watched Warner pin the star to Thomas’ chest.
"All of the delays actually worked in our favor," Kline said. "We’re here in front of the World War II memorial. There’s just no better place to do this. And to have it presented five days before the dedication by the man (Dole) who spearheaded the effort to get it built is just incredible."
Story by Spc. Lorie Jewell