Lexington man receives French Legion of Honor medal for WWII service

Jenkins, who lives at Christ Church Apartments in Lexington, received the medal last month.
Jenkins, who lives at Christ Church Apartments in Lexington, received the medal last month. Lexington Herald-Leader

As an Army first sergeant during World War II, Lester "John" Ferree Jenkins helped liberate France from cruel Nazi occupation. Late last month, the nation of France thanked him in a special way.

Jenkins, 92, was presented with the French Legion of Honor medal, in recognition of his service in France in 1944.

Kentucky Veterans Affairs Commissioner Ken Lucas presented the medal at Christ Church Apartments in Lexington, where Jenkins lives. The medal, making Jenkins a chevalier, or knight, of the Legion of Honor, was accompanied by a letter from Graham Paul, consul general at the French consulate office in Chicago.

Jenkins applied for the medal more than a year ago after hearing from another veteran that France was honoring those who served there in the war.

"I thought I'd never hear from them again," he said. "I figured they had forgotten me."

They had not.

"It is a great honor and privilege to present you with the Knight of the Legion of Honor medal," Paul wrote to Jenkins. "More than 65 years ago, you gave your youth to France and the French people. Many of your fellow soldiers did not return, but they remain in our hearts."

The Legion of Honor was established by Napoleon Bonaparte about 1801 to recognize those who had served France in various ways. Over the years, the decoration has gone both to soldiers and to other notables, from painter Georges Braque to actor-director Clint Eastwood. That puts John Jenkins in impressive company.

A native of New Castle, Pa., he joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1940 after being laid off from an ironworks job. He said his unit began as a horse cavalry outfit, but it was converted to artillery after being activated into the Army in January 1941.

By summer 1942, he and his buddies in the 190th Field Artillery Group were bound for England to prepare for the liberation of France. They went ashore on Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944, the day after the D-Day invasion. Jenkins said he slept that night near a bomb crater containing the bodies of five or six German soldiers. It was the first of many unnerving experiences.

"You can't believe what we saw," he said. "We saw bodies, kids my age, piled up as high as this room. You think that didn't impress you?"

Near St. Lo, France, Jenkins walked up to a medic who was leaning against a tree and then realized that the man was dead, shot in the head.

Jenkins was awarded the Bronze Star on April 12, 1945, the day President Franklin Roosevelt died. His unit was moving toward Czechoslovakia when Germany surrendered on May 7.

Jenkins lived in Pennsylvania until moving to Lexington in the late 1980s to be near his children, son Tim Jenkins and daughter Janet Tucker.

"We're very proud of him," Tucker said.

France began awarding the Legion of Honor to U.S. World War II veterans only about four years ago. Jenkins said he's proud to have the medal, but he wished that the French had started sooner so that more veterans could have been honored.

"Most of the people I served with are all dead," he said.