Like so many of the Greatest Generation, Charles Shepherd served his country during World War II, then came home at war’s end and went about building a life. In late September — nearly 66 years after he completed active duty — Shepherd was awarded the French Legion of Honor by Denis Barbet, the Consul General of France in Atlanta, in recognition of services to the French Republic during WWII.
His story bears telling, just four days before Veteran’s Day.
Shepherd, an Atlanta native, enrolled at North Georgia College after graduating from Boys’ High in 1940. He transferred to Georgia Tech and enlisted in the U.S. Army so he could take advanced ROTC, which offered a commission as second lieutenant upon completion. He received his commission from the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning, Ga., in December 1943, and was activated in May 1944. He was assigned to the 121st Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division; he landed in Normandy in July, about one month after D-Day.
Barely out of his teens, ready or not, he jumped into the fray with a rifle platoon of strangers. He was among replacement officers for injured leaders.
“I was 20 [when commissioned], still growing up. I saw combat just after my 21st birthday,” said Shepherd. “I brought with me a platoon. Soon after we joined the company, someone was hit [by mortar fire]. I grabbed his wrist to feel his pulse. My own pulse was beating so fast I couldn’t tell. I never knew his name.”
Shepherd said he lost very few men under his watch, but many were injured, including himself — twice. He said he credits the first injury for saving his life. North of Dinan, in France, on the way to Brittany, Shepherd was hit by mortar fire. Surrounded by the enemy, with fighting continuing around them, Shepherd and other wounded soldiers took shelter in a farmhouse, waiting four days for evacuation to a French hospital. Shepherd underwent surgery, followed by additional surgery and recuperation in a hospital in England. During his recuperation, men from his company went on to Brest and Luxembourg, where many were killed.
While he didn’t see the first injury coming, the second one didn’t surprise him. Shepherd recalls having a premonition that day. “I knew it was going to happen,” he said. He was in the Ruhr area of Germany, near the end of the war. Bullets were flying all around. “Every time I saw something move, I fired at it,” Shepherd said. After he was hit, he was transported by train to a French hospital, where he recuperated.
Shepherd said that after the war he got to thinking that his hospitalizations were the most stressful part of his military service.
“The stress of returning [to battle] was worse than the fact that you were [in a war],” he said. In the hospital he was safe. He didn’t want to go back to the front lines, but he had to.
By the time the war was over, Shepherd had seen action in the French cities of Coutances, Avranches, Saint-James and Dinan, and fought in the campaigns of Ardennes, the scene of the Battle of the Bulge; the Rhineland and Central Europe. For his wartime service, Shepherd received two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Star medals, a Silver Star medal and an expert combat infantryman badge. He was discharged from active duty as a first lieutenant in January 1946 and remained in the Reserves until 1953.
Back home, Shepherd transferred from Georgia Tech to the University of Georgia, graduating in June 1948 with a business degree. That month, he married his wife, Anne. For 56 years, they’ve lived in the Sexton Woods area of Chamblee, where they raised their son and daughter. They now have four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Shepherd is a retired life insurance company executive who remains active in Kiwanis Club. He is a past commander of American Legion Post 134 and the Atlanta chapter of the Military Order of World Wars. He and his wife are active members of St. Martin in the Fields Episcopal Church; they enjoy traveling in their motor home.
Shepherd was among 12 WWII veterans from the southeast who received the French Legion of Honor award at a Sept. 27 ceremony at the French consulate in Buckhead. Some 150 family members and friends of the honorees attended.
Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the National Order of the Legion of Honor is the highest honor in France and “recognizes eminent services to the French Republic,” according to a statement from the consulate.