July 12, 2007: with regret we note that on this date Johnnie Stevens passed away (see Taps page.)
French Legion of Honor Presented to Johnnie Stevens, Jr.
By Joe Wilson, Jr.
See Personal Messages to Johnnie Stevens, below
Monday May 8, 2006, the 61st anniversary of victory in Europe, Francois Delattre, the Consul General of France, presented France's highest distinction, the coveted Legion of Honor, to nine American World War II Veterans for their critical role in liberating France. The investiture took place at the French Consulate Building, 934 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.
This photograph of Sgt. Johnnie Stevens, Jr., was taken at Camp Hood, Texas, in 1942
The recipients were as follows: Jerome Baker (357th Inf. Reg.); Joseph Behhler (320th Inf. Reg.); Edward Dawes (52nd QM); John Di Monte (30th Inf. Reg.); John Fanotto (55th QM); Robert Langevin (USN); Bertram Linder (12th Inf. Reg.); Anthony Santoro (47th AIB) and Johnnie Stevens, Jr. (761st Tank Bn.).
Johnnie proudly received this award despite his battle with advanced cancer. It took uncommon strength, endurance, and courage on his part to be present. Sitting for hours was excruciatingly uncomfortable and dangerous. There were very few dry eyes in the room as France's Consul General presented him with this honor.
In a heartfelt speech, Consul General Francois Delattre imparted the following words:
Monsieur le sénateur, Messieurs les Conseillers à l’Assemblée des Français de l’Etranger, Monsieur le Président de la Fédération des Anciens Combattants Français, Mr. Le Président Bruce Boeglin, Chers amis anciens combattants, [Mister Senator, Advisers with the Parliament of France from abroad, Mr. President of the Federation of French Ex-serviceman, Mr. President Bruce Boeglin, dear friends ex-serviceman and] dear American veterans and friends,
C’est un grand honneur pour moi –une vraie émotion aussi, vous le savez- de vous accueillir ce soir au Consulat général de France. [It is a great honor for me - a true emotion also, you know - to accomodate you this evening at the Consulate-General of France.]
Francois Delattre, Consul General of France in New York City
En ce 8 mai, qui célèbre la victoire alliée sur les nazis, nous sommes réunis en effet pour entretenir la flamme sacrée du souvenir et de la mémoire. [On this 8 May, when we celebrate the allied victory over the Nazis, let us be reunited indeed to maintain the flame of the memory and the memory.]
Souvenir de ces combats, auxquels les forces françaises et la Résistance ont pris toute leur part, pour la défense de la patrie, pour la défense aussi de nos valeurs. [To remember the combat, wherein French forces and Resistance took their share, for the defense of the fatherland, for the defense also of our values.]
Mémoire de ceux qui ont payé ce combat de leur vie : nous leur devons, et nous vous devons, d’être aujourd’hui ce que nous sommes, et d’abord de vivre libres. [Remembering those paying for this combat with their lives: let us, as we must, and we owe to you, be what we are today, and primarily living free.]
Rendre hommage aux anciens combattants, c’est pour moi le premier devoir d’un serviteur de l‘Etat et de la Nation. En rendant cet hommage, nous pensons aussi à ceux qui agissent aujourd’hui pour la paix sur les différents théâtres d’opérations de part le monde, et nous leur exprimons notre soutien. [Paying homage to ex-serviceman, for me the best servants of the State and Nation. While giving this homage, we also think of those acting today for peace in the various theatres of operations of the world, and let us express our support.]
May I switch to English to extend a warm welcome to the American veterans who are with us tonight. Your presence honors us all.
As we are celebrating today the sixty-first anniversary of our common victory on tyranny, I would like to pay tribute to you and to all the American veterans who were critical in liberating France and Europe. The French will never forget what they did, what you did, to restore our freedom.
Today we also remember the ultimate sacrifice of so many of your comrades. Many rest in French soil and all will rest forever in our hearts. In the soul and the mind of each French citizen, young and old alike, there is this profound and eternal gratitude toward our American friends.
Johnnie Stevens, Jr., Anthony Santoro, and John Fanotto, listening to Francois Delattre read the citation for Johnnie Stevens
As a natural consequence, whenever the essential is at stake, France and the United States have always stood shoulder to shoulder to defend and promote their shared values.
It is true today as our two countries are each other’s best allies in the fight against terrorism. To take just one example, American and French Special Forces are side by side in the mountains of Afghanistan to track down Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda supporters.
In the same vein, our two countries face together the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. France and the United States have the same position on Iran and the nuclear issue, based on the shared view that Iran must not be allowed to become a nuclear weapons’ state. As you know, we are now at a critical stage of intensive consultations within the United Nations Security Council on this difficult issue.
Ladies and Gentlemen, today we are paying a special tribute to nine American heroes, who more than sixty years ago risked their young lives for the freedom of France and Europe. I would like to extend a warm welcome to their families and friends, who have come from various places to show their admiration and gratitude.
These nine American veterans of the Second World War have been nominated to the Legion of Honor by the President of the French Republic Jacques Chirac.
Fellow Legion of Honor recipient Jerome Baker greets Johnnie Stevens, Jr.
The French Legion of Honor was established to reward outstanding services rendered to France, on the basis of personal merit. Since its creation by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, the Legion of Honor has been France’s highest distinction and one of the most coveted distinctions in the world.
Before proceeding with the official part of the ceremony, I would like to give the floor to Guy Wildenstein, President of the American Society of the French Legion of Honor.
Ladies and Gentlemen, now, our national anthems.
I would like now to personally address each of the nine American veterans we are honouring tonight before proceeding, on behalf of the President of the Republic, with the presentation of the insignia of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
You served in the anti-tank company belonging to the 357th infantry regiment.
You took part in the landing in Normandy on D-Day. Then with your unit, you went to the North of France and later Alsace-Lorraine where you participated in the siege of Metz from September 14th to November 19th, 1944.
Jerome Baker awaiting presentation of his Legion of Honor
At the end of December 1944, you left the Siegfried line to take part in the battle of the Bulge until the end of January 1945.
Finally, from January 1945 to march 1945, you participated in The Rhineland campaign.
In recognition of your bravery, you received the prestigious bronze star medal.
You served as a corporal in the 320th infantry regiment. Your unit was in the Normandy campaign from the start, landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6th 1944. You took part in the offensive action southwest of St-Lo.
You also participated in the campaign in the North of France. In August 1944, your division secured Mortain-Avranches and rescued the 30th division “Lost Battalion”. Then racing across France through Orleans in September, in the start of the Rhineland campaign, your unit captured Nancy and secured Chambrey, then drove on to the German border in October.
Johnnie Stevens, Jr., and E.G. McConnell, veterans of the 761st Tank Battalion
You also participated in the battle of the Bulge and were there when Bastogne was relieved on December 25th-26th, 1944. For meritorious service, you received the good conduct medal.
You served as a truck driver in the 52nd quartermaster truck battalion. Your unit was specialized in amphibious invasions and river crossings.
You enlisted in 1942 and in February 1943 you took part in the Tunisia campaign. Then, with your battalion, you made an amphibious landing in Sicily on July 10th, 1943.
Finally, in August 15, 1944, you participated in the invasion of Southern France between Toulon and Cannes.
For meritorious service, you received the good conduct medal.
John DI MONTE
You served as a platoon sergeant in the 30th infantry regiment. With your unit, you took part in the landings in the South of France on August 15th, 1944 in Marseilles.
Johnnie Stevens, Jr., Anthony Santoro, and John Fanotto
Subsequently you went north and were wounded in Strasbourg on October 3rd, 1944. You were the only surviving member of the platoon.
For meritorious service, you received the Purple Heart medal.
You served as a corporal in the 55th quartermaster base depot. Your unit, which was in charge of supplies and gasoline, landed at Utah beach, then after the bombing of St. Lo, moved on to liberate towns between Avranches and St Lo. For you, the campaign ended in Reims, at the largest army supply depot, where you remained one year.
Your duties also included interrogating prisoners of war and constructing POW enclosures.
For meritorious service, you were awarded the good conduct medal and the victory medal.
You enlisted in the US Navy, at the age of 20, on October 29th, 1942.
John Walsh (President of the 35th infantry Division Association and a holder of the Legion of Honor), Joe Wilson and E.G. McConnell
You trained as a machinist’s mate on the USN TR3, which was a salvage and rescue ship.
On D-Day, the ATR3 was among the first ships to come into the range of the German artillery guns on the cliffs of Normandy.
With your unit, you were responsible for towing disabled landing craft off the beach all day long. You also pulled disabled destroyers and gunboats out of the Channel. This action provided a clear, unobstructed approach for the hundreds of landing rafts, infantry troops, trucks, jeeps, ammunition artillery guns, food tents, medical supplies and medical personnel.
After June 25th, the ATR.3 was stationed in the port of Cherbourg from where you rescued the crew of the Leopoldville, a Belgian troop ship carrying hundreds of American infantrymen, which was torpedoed five miles off the coast of Cherbourg.
For meritous service, you received the good conduct medal, a letter of commendation and the victory medal.
You were a combat infantry officer in “E” company belonging to the 12th infantry regiment. With your unit, you landed at Utah beach on D.Day where you were wounded. You refused evacuation in order to assist the beach commander. You fought at Sainte-Mere l’Eglise and Saint-Lo and took part in the liberation of Cherbourg.
Presentation of the Legion of Honor to Staff Sgt. Johnnie Stevens, Jr., of the 761st Tank Battalion
Your regiment then fought its way to Paris where, as you could speak French, you served as liaison with the French 2nd armoured division commanded by General Leclerc. In recognition of your bravery, your heroic achievement and your exemplar leadership, you received the prestigious American medals: the “Purple Heart” and the “Bronze Star”.
You served in the 47th armoured infantry battalion.
With your unit, you landed at Utah beach on June 10th, 1944 and then took part in the liberation of Saint-Lo.
In recognition of your bravery, and for meritorious service, you were awarded the good conduct medal and the victory medal.
Legion of Honor recipient Johnnie Stevens, Jr., beside his wife, Evelyn, with their family and friends at the ceremony in the French Consulate
Photo by Christina S. DeHaven, New York University
You served as a staff Sergeant in the 761st tank battalion, which was the sole armoured unit composed of African-Americans deployed in Europe.
With your unit, you took part in battles in Northern France and the Ardennes. You were wounded in France on November 11, 1944.
You belonged to a battalion which received a presidential citation for extraordinary heroism. I quote part of the citation:
“The 761st tank battalion distinguished itself by extraordinary gallantry, courage, professionalism and high esprit de corps displayed in the accomplishment of unusually difficult and hazardous operations in the European theatre of operations. During 183 days in combat, elements of the 761st were responsible for inflicting thousands of enemy casualties and for capturing, destroying, or aiding in the liberation of more than 30 major towns. This was accomplished while enduring an overall casualty rate approaching 50 percent”.
Mr. Stevens, you personally received the prestigious American medals: the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
PersonalMessages to Johnnie Stevens
To Johnnie Stevens
Dear Mr. Stevens,
Congratulations on being awarded France’s highest military honor for your service in the famed Black Panthers Tanker Battalion. You have not only helped to liberate half the world long ago, you leave an inspiration for centuries to come.
God bless you,
Dear Mr Stevens,
Congratulations on your award. I am glad to see our black veterans get their just due. I remember my father & fellow Staff Sgt. (Jack Sr) telling me stories of how you fought together for 183 straight days under Patton. People forget that if it wasn't for people such as yourself & other unsung heroes that we would not be enjoying our lives as we now know it.
Son of a Tanker
Dear Mr Stevens:
As a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust, I salute you and thank you with all my heart for being one of the first to liberate Nazi concentration camps with your heroic 761st Tank Battalion at the end of World War II. When your time comes, you will sit on the right side of God!
John G. Stoessinger Ph.D.
My friend Joe Wilson told me you are going to receive France's Legion of Honor medal soon, Congratulations! Also please accept my sincerest 'Thank You' for all you have done for this great nation. The accomplishments of the 761st Tank Battalion were amazing! My father was a Combat Engineer in the ETO. We are proud of you sir!
Bob Martin, SGT US Army M.P.'s 75-78.
Johnnie -- You are one of my heroes. God bless you.
Charles W. "Chuck" Sasser, author Patton's Panthers.
November 11, 2006
Sixty one years ago in a German village named Leuchtenberg, WWII was winding down at a fast pace. A nine year old Hitler Youth kid, named Bruno Ehlich, was an ammunition carrier on a German anti-tank gun positioned in the woods just outside this village. Their orders from the SS soldiers were to fire on any oncoming American tanks hoping to slow down their advance. An American Sherman tank rumbled up into view and Bruno's crew fired on this tank but caused no damage. Return fire from the tank wiped out the German crew, either killed or wounded. Bruno, wounded and scared, ran to the castle in this village only to find the SS troops gone, now leaving the defense of Leuchtenberg into the hands of these Hitler Youth. Bruno, running from the castle down to the village center, found himself staring up into the huge barrel of the 76 gun on the tank. A black tanker jumped to the ground grabbing Bruno by the neck and demanded to know the location of the German troops or where they were hiding. Bruno revealed a secret underground passage and shortly the village was in American hands and little nine year old Bruno found himself a prisoner of this black tanker.
Bruno's story, Born On The Wrong Side Of The Fence, written in 2004, had a chapter missing. Who was this black GI tanker? Was he still alive? Can I find him or his unit? Persistent searching by Vern Schmidt, a combat veteran of the 90th Infantry Division, and a friend of Bruno, found Joe Wilson, Jr., author of a book The 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion in World War II. Joe's father was in this unit and familiar with much of its history through France and Germany and Joe Wilson Jr. became very involved in trying to find the tanker who had grabbed Bruno on that April day back in 1945. Following several phone calls to Mr. Johnnie Stevens, Jr. of Cateret, N.J. and he being a former tanker from the 761st Tk Bn., Mr. Stevens said, "I believe that probably was me". Now, after sixty one years Bruno Ehlich, a retired Sgt. from the Royal Australian Air Force, sent Mr. Johnnie Stevens, Jr. a letter of congratulations and thanking him for liberating this little Austrian kid from Hitler's Nazi army. Poor health and continents apart will probably prevent these two gentlemen from meeting each other, but perhaps now Bruno can realize his long search is complete. Our congratulations to Mr. Johnnie Stevens, Jr. on receiving the coveted French National Legion of Honor award for his exemplary service in WWII to the French people. May God Bless Johnnie Stevens, Jr.
Vern Schmidt, 90th I.D. WWII
October 2015 addendum:
90th Infantry Division member Vernon Schmidt reports that although he questioned whether 761st tankers came into Leuchtenburg on the 24th of April of 1945, because that was in the 90th ID area and the 90th set up a divisional Command Post at 4:00 pm on the 24th in that little town in Bavaria, several veterans told him that African American tankers were there. He was recently told by a WWII vet that the 71st ID was just west of Leuchtenburg that day, and he confirmed that the 761st was supporting them. Vernon's thinking is that a 761st tank that may have gone down a road that led into the 90th area. As funny side note, one of the men asked a Hitler Youth (Vernon's post-war friend, Bruno Ehlich) where the German soldiers were. Bruno showed them a hidden passage into the castle and when the tank guys blew the lock off the door to this passage all kinds of people came out, including a lady whose sons were on an anti-tank gun trying to stop the tank. She had a pistol in her hand and pointed it at the tank like she was going to take it prisoner, since she was mad at the Americans for what they did to her sons on the anti-tank gun. Vernon has been back there four times staying in a guest house that was then owned by the same lady.
An added note: After Action Reports show "A" Co. 357th Reg't., 90th I.D. entering Leuchtenberg on 24 April 1945 and setting up a Divisional Command Post. No doubt Johnnie Stevens and his "Black Panthers" moved on to take the next village.
Upon hearing about the 761st this morning (May 16th) on the Tom Joyner Morning Show radio program, I was moved to do a search on the internet to learn more about them. I was amazed to hear that just last week, Mr. Stevens was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal. Further reading made me that much more proud of the accomplishments of this tank battalion and Mr. Stevens. Thank God for the accomplishments (as little as they are known and published by mainstream media) of fellow African-Americans to make this nation and the world that much more greater! I am very proud! May God bless you, Mr. Stevens, and your crew. THANKS!
Great job, Joe Wilson. I will be looking to purchase your book on the 761st.
Weylan G. Stricklin
Dear Mr Johnnie Stevens,
I would like to send my best wishes and my congratulations for your LOH award reveived from the French Government.
You deserved this and we are full of respect for what you did for us during your ETO time.
We realize we got freedom in 1944 by liberation of the US soldiers with heavy sacrifices in France and Belgium (Battle of Bulge). We haven't forgotten and will never forget.
Our greetings from Holland through a digital flowercard,
Maastricht. The Netherlands.
Dear Mr Steven’s or may I call you Johnnie,
I would like to send our congratulations all the way from Belfast, Northern Ireland on your up and coming date in New York which we hear you will be given the Legion of Honor Award.
We would like to congratulate you on such a wonderful thing and hope that you will enjoy your day to the full.
I have been doing some research into African American troops in Northern Ireland and came into contact with Joe Wilson Jr. through the internet who has told me of your award. I know he thinks highly of you and I was so honoured when he shared the news with us that I couldn’t wait to send you a little note.
Although we are on the other side of the world I must say that we do still feel so much appreciation for the freedom you all fought to provide for us the younger generation.
I myself am 33 years of age and have found a new perspective on my freedom through my research. I cherish every day the fact that I can walk tall and make my own choices, this I owe to men like you.
Thank you for all the sacrifices and hardships you had to endure and I make a solemn promise to you that I personally will strive to make use of the freedom you so proudly fought for me.
From our wee town of Belfast, Northern Ireland, have a very special day on May 8th. We will all be wishing you the very best.
From your younger generation in Northern Ireland.
God bless you,
Karen & Raymond Nixon
I called you one year ago and we spoke for some 40 minutes about your time in the war. I am teaching African Canadian Studies. I want my students to know about the black experience in the Nazi Era. I teach about you and Max Eisen, a prisoner you liberated at Ebensee, Austria, as part of that experience. Your story is so personal that it really gets to the students. I want them to understand what Thank You really means and your participation in WWII really helps them understand what Thank You is supposed to feel like. I/we are truly grateful that you and your mates put your lives on the line for our freedom here in North America. Please know that you will always be honored north of the boarder in at least one history class. And if I have anything to do with it, many more teacahers and students will learn of your contributions.
I feel privileged to have spoken to you that one time on the phone. I would love to have met you in person to shake your hand and stare into your eyes to see the soul of a hero.
I wish you peace and remain forever thankful for men like you.
Social Studies Dept Head
J. L. Ilsley High School
Halifax, NS, Canada
"Fighting for a country that did not believe in them, they used their courage, pride, and honor to prove they were the best. They did not ask for respect, they commanded it. They changed the world around them for the better. They were the 761st Tank Battalion, an all African-American WWII unit who changed the military, their homeland, and the world forever…they were the Black Panthers, the greatest Tank Battalion ever. It upsets me greatly that as a former history student I was never taught about the heroic African-American efforts during WWII and to this day, it remains a story untold to the general public or one taught in the various school systems -- this film will change that immediately. This special moment in history provides a defining moment of the honor, courage, and sacrifice made by the African-American 761st Tank Battalion known as The Black Panthers. This is such an important story that needs to be told worldwide, because it illustrates that a man’s color of skin, where he comes from, and how much money he makes means absolutely nothing—the real judgement comes from a man’s character. A man is judged by WHO he is, not WHAT he is. This film serves as inspiration to the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the black and the white, and everyone in between. It shows that those who do not make excuses for obstacles they must overcome and instead work on overcoming the obstacles will be rewarded. Their accomplishments are irrefutable, just look at the 11 Silver Stars, at least 60 Bronze Stars, four battlefield commissions and the highest award that there is—the Congressional Medal of Honor. Just recently, Johnnie Stevens was awarded France’s highest medal, the Legion of Honor. Their character should provide a standard for others to strive to live their life by—they are true heroes by ever measure of the word and if you are lucky enough to meet one of them, try to absorb every ounce of greatness in them...."
Michael Matthew Barker (Silver Screen Studios)