Napoleon Light, proudly wearing the Legion of Honor ribbon, which was awarded by the French government in 2012 as a survivor of the liberation of France in World War II. Light is one of only 249 Americans to be honored with the award, the highest civilian honor the French can award.
Napoleon Light went to Europe, he says, by rail — hugging the rail of one of the three transport ships that brought 15,000 American soldiers to England to prepare for D-Day, wracked by sea-sickness.
But fortunately for Light he wasn’t a sailor, he was a soldier, and he was bound for solid ground in Europe. After training for months in England, Light boarded another ship at South Hampton, this time bound for a departure point off of Omaha Beach. He went ashore on Omaha Beach on D+3, or three days after the initial D Day invasion on June 6, 1944. He would spend the rest of the war slogging his way through Europe with the 30th Infantry, known as Old Hickory.
“I was scared, but I wasn’t alone,” Light said. “We knew where we were going. We were ready for combat. We had trained for it, but we weren’t anxious for the trip across.”
Omaha Beach was still very much a war zone when Light came ashore. Artillery bombings and strafing by German Messerschmitts were a constant companion as the 30th began the slow drive through the European highlands. When they made it far enough inland, Light said, the famous French hedge-rows offered a small measure of safety from the incoming onslaught. Even so, Light got very proficient at diving into shallow slit trenches when the roaring of the Messerschmitts appeared overhead.
“We were glad to get behind those hedge-rows and dig in, because we were pretty safe from incoming shells and machine-gun fire. I remember a strafing in Normandy by a couple of Messerschmitts. It’s lucky we were able to get down behind them because they were really giving us heck.”
On July 15 Allied armies broke through German lines at St. Lo, and Light’s division was sent north into Belgium. Another part of his Division turned south and took part in the liberation of Paris.
In Belgium they fought against fierce German resistance, ultimately pushing the Germans back to the purportedly impregnable Siegfried Line. Once they passed the Siegfried Line, Light and the 30th fought their way into Germany, crossing the Rhine River and eventually pushing the Germans in front of them over the Elbe River at the city of Magdeburg.
“We moved all the way from the Rhine to the Elbe River, 35 miles west of Berlin. By agreement that’s where the two armies agreed to meet,” said Light. “They (the Russian army) were on one side of the river and we were on the other.”
Light eventually was assigned to a security detail for American Generals, providing perimeter protection night and day. This is where Light was in May 1945 when the war in Europe ended, after 18 months of foreign service. Light and Old Hickory were credited with five separate campaigns in Europe. He shipped back to the United States in August with orders to ship to the Pacific Theater. While he was on the ship crossing back across the Atlantic, the war ended. A sergeant during the European campaign, Light was awarded his staff sergeant rocker on the transport back.
Of five Plattsburgh men who were part of the 15,000 who shipped across with Light, he says he was the only the fifth who “came back whole.” Three were killed and are buried in Normandy, and one came back with serious wounds.
When he returned from the war, Light quietly slipped back into civilian life like so many World War II veterans did. He attended Champlain College, now Clinton Community College, on the G.I. Bill and ended up with a degree in accounting. He got a job working for the IRS as an accountant, which he did for 27 years before retiring. When he wasn’t crunching numbers, Light spent his time as a drummer in local swing bands. He only put down the sticks three years ago, at the age of 88. He still keeps a set of practice pads close at hand under a blanket in his shop.
Though his award case was already stuffed with ribbons and awards, including a Presidential Unit Citation and three citations for campaigns in Europe, there was room for one more honor. In November of 2012 Light was awarded the Legion of Honor by the government of France as a survivor of the liberation of France. The Legion of Honor is the highest honor France can bestow on a civilian. Light is one of only 249 Americans to ever have received the award.