On D-Day more than 70 years ago, U.S. Army Sgt. Tommy Gooch stormed Utah Beach in Normandy, France. Just off the coast, John Arnold worked in the boiler room aboard the USS Bayfield, which carried troops bound for the invasion.
On Wednesday, the Arkansas men sat side by side in the governor's conference room at the state Capitol and were recognized by France for their service to the country during World War II.
Sujiro Seam, the consul general of France in Houston, presented Arnold, 91, and Gooch, 100, with medals as knights in the French Order of the Legion of Honor -- France's highest distinction.
"We are here today to honor two American heroes, two sons of Arkansas," Seam said. "When my country, France, needed assistance of its allies, the American boys took the trip."
The French order was established in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to honor military and civilian service to France. In 2004, 60 years after U.S. troops invaded Normandy, the award was opened to living Americans who helped liberate France during WWII.
Seam estimated that hundreds of American WWII veterans have received the medals. Beatrice Moore, an honorary consul of France in Little Rock, said about 10 Arkansans have been inducted.
During the ceremony, Seam referenced the Jan. 7 attack on the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, saying "people fighting for their country, people fighting for their freedom" are not fights of the past.
"Recent events in France showed us that it is still very, very contemporary to stand up for your country, to sacrifice for freedom, diplomacy," Seam said. "Today I will honor these two gentlemen, but really in this ceremony I want to celebrate the French-American friendship. Vive la France and God bless America."
Gooch, of Danville, landed at Normandy as part of the Army's 90th Infantry Division. During six months of combat, he participated in two other battles in France, and he sent money home to his father to help with the family's farm.
In December 1944, while his unit moved across the Prims River, a mortar shell blew up and injured Gooch's legs, ending his military service. He spent about two years in military hospitals in England and Oklahoma.
He and his wife, Sible, who died in 2011 at age 90, had two children, five grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren.
"We're just so proud of him," said his daughter, Kathy Witt, 64, of Danville. "Before any of this, we were proud of him. He's always been a super great dad and grandpa. The only thing I really, really wish was that my mom was here to see this."
Arnold, of Vilonia, joined the U.S. Coast Guard at age 19 after graduating high school. He spent his 21st birthday -- June 17, 1944 -- aboard the USS Bayfield during the Normandy invasion. The Bayfield had a 500-man crew and carried 2,200 troops.
"I was scared," Arnold remembered of the invasion. "There was fear, not knowing what's going to happen."
Arnold was also on the Bayfield when it was part of the invasion of southern France and the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in Japan.
Arnold was discharged in 1946, and he and his wife, Mary, had four daughters and six grandchildren.
Surrounded by family, shaking hands and taking photos, Arnold said Wednesday was a "wonderful day."
"I was just glad to serve," he said. "I was a guy that had never been out of Arkansas other than Memphis."
According to numbers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Arnold and Gooch are two of the estimated 1 million WWII veterans living in the U.S. as of December.
A September report from the department shows there are about 8,800 living WWII veterans in Arkansas. According to statistics from the National WWII Museum, that is down from the more than 58,000 WWII veterans who lived in the state in 2000.
"We'll continue giving out the medals as long as we can," Seam said. "Every single time I have an opportunity to do it, I do."
Also Wednesday, the Arkansas House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs passed a resolution to recognize and commend another WWII veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
William Strauss, 95, of Salem was part of the Army's 9th Armored Division from 1942 to 1945. Known as the "Phantom Division" for its fight against Germany in the Battle of the Bulge, Strauss' unit received the Presidential Unit Citation, which is given to distinguished units for their heroism.
"I am amazed at what those guys went through," said the resolution's sponsor, Rep. Scott Baltz, D-Pocahontas. "I want to bring that young man up here."
NW News on 01/22/2015
Print Headline: France honors two for WWII service