It’s never too late to say “thank you.” Just ask Lexington residents Victor Robinson and Dr. Gayle Alexander.
Both World War II veterans are recent recipients of the French Legion of Honor, the highest decoration bestowed by France.
Robinson, 92, was among those who landed on a beach at Normandy 73 years ago.
Alexander, 95, was a pilot who flew a bomber over France in the initial wave on D-Day, as the June 6, 1944, invasion was called.
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American veterans who risked their lives are frequently awarded the French Legion of Honor as an expression of gratitude.
“It just means the French people thought a lot of us,” Robinson said in an interview in late July.
Robinson grew up on a tobacco farm south of Nicholasville. He joined the Army in 1943, took basic training in Fort Bragg, N.C., and traveled by ship across the Atlantic to Great Britain in preparation for the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Robinson’s field artillery regiment didn’t enter France until some days after D-Day.
“We were out in a storm in the English Channel,” Robinson said. “We sat there for three days bobbing up and down” in a landing ship that held 155mm howitzers.
He didn’t get sick, but the constant rocking of the boat caused the artillery pieces to break loose from their chains.
“We had to get down in there to get them chained back,” he said. “This was a pretty good-size ship.”
His artillery regiment didn’t face enemy resistance until it went inland some miles into the hedgerow country.
In August 1944, he was wounded when a piece of shrapnel from an exploding land mine pierced his neck. Not long after his release from the hospital, and while he was en route to rejoin his artillery unit, Robinson recognized another guy from Jessamine County, Jesse Beazley. (Beazley received the French Legion of Honor in 2009; he died in 2015.)
Robinson went through France, Luxembourg and Belgium before entering Germany. His eyes well up in tears when he recalls the day that the sky was filled with Allied bombers all heading in the same direction. The sight of those planes were a sign of hope that the war was nearing its end.
Alexander was among the pilots of those American bombers in Europe. On D-Day, he and his crew flew a B-17 bomber across the English Channel and into France. It was the first of his 19 bombing missions.
“I think our mission was to bomb a bridge” so the Germans wouldn’t be able to get reinforcements, Alexander said Thursday.
As he flew over the Channel, Alexander was amazed at the sight in the water below.
“I never saw as many boats, all of them loaded with soldiers,” he said. “It was a sight you’ll never forget.”
Alexander said his heart nearly stopped at one point during the flight when his co-pilot accidentally turned off all four engines.
“I yelled ‘Switches!’” Alexander said, and the co-pilot immediately took action to get the engines running again.
“I just looked at him like, ‘Don’t ever do that again,’” he said.
He had a much closer encounter with death over Germany in November 1944, when anti-aircraft fire struck the plane.
“Fire filled the cockpit,” he said. He bailed out and fell head-first. He pulled the ripcord to open his parachute — and nothing happened. Realizing that he hadn’t pulled the cord far enough, he tried again, and the chute released.
“It opened at full speed and snapped me so hard that I lost my boots,” Alexander wrote years later.
He made it safely onto the ground but was soon captured by the Germans. He was a prisoner of war until spring 1945, when Gen. George Patton liberated him and thousands of other prisoners.
After the war, Alexander married, had three children and became a veterinarian. His wife, Betsy, died in 2007. Son Cy Alexander lives in Jessamine County and daughter Cassie Gago lives in Lexington. Another son, Thomas, died as a teen.
After the war, Robinson returned to Jessamine County to raise tobacco and hogs. He married his high school sweetheart, Imogene, in March 1946. She died in 2012.
They had two children, a son, Gene, and a daughter, Karen, who lives in Lexington. In 2003, Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. In September, he will assume a new role as vice president and senior pastor of the Chautauqua Institution in New York.
Victor Robinson joined the Fayette County Fire Department in 1953. He was the department’s chief from 1969 to 1973, when the city and county governments merged. After the merger, he was battalion chief and later assistant chief.
Robinson never returned to Europe. But a simple gift in 1944 relayed all the thanks he needed from the people of Europe.
One day, he said, “we saw these people carrying wood and brush, and they had an oven in the yard. They put that wood in there and got that oven hot. Then here come the ladies with the dough bowls and … after a while, one of the ladies gave us a loaf of bread.
“It smelled and tasted good. They gave us some butter and jam, and man, it was delicious.”
Alexander received a letter from the French consulate in Chicago that reads, “For us, the French people, you are a hero.”
But Alexander said, “I don’t feel I’m a hero. I’ve never felt that in my life.” Friends and family plan to gather at his home Saturday for a ceremony in recognition of the honor.
As for the medal, Alexander said, “It’s a nice honor, but I laugh about it. It took 73 years to find me.”