By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Like so many of his generation, James Fred Robinson left his home and family in Northeast Mississippi in 1943 at the age of 19 to travel to Europe where he risked his life to help liberate a country he knew about only from his Tremont High School textbooks.
On Tuesday, Robinson and 10 other Mississippians from what often is referred to as America’s “greatest generation” were honored by that liberated country when they received the French Legion of Honor.
The ceremony, held at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, was presided over by Denis Barbet, France’s consul general based in Atlanta.
Barbet, speaking in the House chamber of the historic building before more than 100 family members and friends of the honorees, said he had done several similar events in other states recently.
Speaking in a thick French accent, he said it “always has been emotional” to honor those who 70 years earlier “left their hometowns to fight for a land they had never been to restore liberty and democracy.”
Barbet said the award was France’s highest honor.
Some of the honorees wore their military uniforms, Some stood as Barbet bestowed the Legion of Honor award. Some could not. Some hugged Barbet after he pinned the award on their label.
The other honorees were Jack Carver of Belzoni, William Fuller of Vicksburg, Edsol Wells of Lauderdale, Joseph Coscia of Southaven, Joseph R. Johnson of Columbus, Harry Quinn of Madison, Malcolm L. Jones of Hazlehurst, Gerald Campbell of Gulfport, Thomas Creekmore of Ocean Springs and William Correll of Madison.
Robinson, who was a private first class, had recently moved from the Tremont area to Aberdeen with his family when he enlisted in 1943. He was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and fought in July at Saint-Lo where the way was opened for Gen. George Patton’s tanks to march across Europe as part of the decisive victory in the European theater.
“It was a different era,” said Robinson, wearing an American flag necktie. “We had a purpose in our service. At least we thought we did. We thought we were going to end all wars. It did not turn out that way.”
Still, Robinson said Tuesday he is proud of his and his fellow soldiers’ efforts to liberate France from the rule of Nazi Germany. He returned to France for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion where “we were treated like royalty.”
Recalling those days 70 years ago as a young man just beginning his life, a stoic Robinson said he never thought he was going to die despite the dangers that he lived with night and day. He conceded he had friends “who had visions they were going to die and some did.”
He worked on the heavy mortar guns, so he was often a target of attacks by the Nazis.
“I was scared. If you said you were not, you had not been there,” he said. “War is nothing but trying to kill the guy over there before he kills you.”
He received a Purple Heart with two clusters, meaning he was injured three times, the final time sending him home to the United States in February 1945. He married his girlfriend, the then-Viola Phillips of Fulton on March 18, 1945, while still on active duty.
They eventually settled in Aberdeen after he was discharged later that year. He was a successful businessman, owning a grocery store and motel, and he served on the Aberdeen Board of Aldermen.
He and his wife recently moved to south Madison County in the Jackson area where his son, James F. Robinson Jr., lives. His son and his daughter, Ann Violet of Hot Springs, Ark., and other family and friends were on hand Tuesday for the honor bestowed on Fred Robinson for his actions as a young man to help save a foreign land.
It brought back memories for many and a renewal of gratitude by others for a sacrifice made by a generation some seven decades ago.