WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Almost 70 years after Joseph Federico was wounded and captured in the hedgerows of France, he was personally thanked Friday by that country's government during a heartfelt ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy.
The 88-year-old Belvidere, New Jersey, resident was among 34 World War II veterans decorated as knights of France's Legion of Honor in a ceremony leading up to the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings that began June 6, 1944.
Many honorees had white hair and stooped postures and rose slowly to have the medals pinned to their chests. But, to a man, they said the honor was welcome seven decades after their service.
"I'm just lucky that I'm here to get this, you know, because it was awfully tough for all of us," said Federico, who spent two months recovering from a shrapnel wound to his leg as a prisoner of war. "I lost good friends from my company, and it was terrible."
Federico wore his new decoration on his blazer, just below his Purple Heart.
The French Legion of Honor is an order of distinction established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. Hundreds of Americans have been awarded the medal in the decade since France opened eligibility to living U.S. veterans who fought on French territory during any of four major campaigns. But Consul General of France Bertrand Lortholary said it was important to show their gratitude at West Point in front of the cadets who will make up the next generation of U.S. officers.
Lortholary told the veterans and their family members that they will always remember their sacrifices as well as the ones made by their comrades who rest in French soil.
"Seventy years have passed since then, and yet the memory of the sacrifice of American soldiers remains more vivid than ever in the villages of France -- in Normandy, in Provence, in the Ardennes, whose cemeteries bear witness to war's cost in life," Lortholary said. "I want to tell you that your example gives us inspiration for the future."
At least one cadet took time before the service to individually thank the men for their service. But 90-year-old Francis Cocca, of Green Island, seemed a bit uncomfortable with all the praise as one of the soldiers lucky enough to make it back.
"It's beyond words almost. Very, very honored, of course," Cocca said. "I came home. I had one medal. I put it in a box and forgot it. Now look at this!"