The man behind John Theis Sr. opened the valves on his flamethrower, just before the ramp of their landing craft dropped. Theis shouldered his 60-pound flamethrower as he waded ashore and ran across the sands of Omaha beach. Amidst a torrent of machine gun fire and the explosions of shells, Theis and his comrades advanced on the veteran German troops dug into the hills above them.
Photo by Chris Rogers
John Theis Sr. of Rollingstone received the Knight of the French Legion of Honor medal for his service during
World War II.
In honor of his service on D-Day and across France during World War II, John Theis Sr., of Rollingstone, received the title of Knight in the French Legion of Honor, France's highest honor. On Saturday, January 19, Colonel Eric Kerska of the U.S. Army 34th Infantry Division presented Theis with a medal from the French government in a ceremony at the Winona VFW.
Theis was a flamethrower during one of the deadliest landings of D-Day. He survived that horrific day unscathed, but was hospitalized three times for shrapnel wounds as he fought with the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division of the U.S. Army across France, Holland, and Germany during World War II.
Theis spoke in a matter-of-fact manner about his injuries, the three Purple Hearts he received for them, and his experience on D-Day.
Theis's 29th Division and two other divisions were responsible for taking a section of Normandy code-named Omaha beach. According to TIME's D-Day: 24 Hours That Saved the World, Allied commanders believed that Omaha beach was lightly defended, that aerial and naval bombardments would shatter German defenses, and that amphibious tanks landing just before the troops would destroy any remaining resistance. The landing on Omaha was supposed to be a cakewalk.
However, things went tragically wrong. Because of thick fog, naval and aerial bombardments of the coast missed their marks and the amphibious tanks were released too early, resulting in the sinking of 27 of 32 tanks. The troops at Omaha "had but one grim advantage," writes TIME, "there were so many of them that it was impossible for the Germans to shoot everyone at once."
Theis recalled waiting in a landing craft full of his comrades in the pre-dawn darkness off-shore and then, all at once, turning in to land on German-occupied France.
"Oh yeah, you had to be scared. That's when you were careful," Theis said. "You just didn't think about it, after you saw the dead ones and this and that, it just didn't matter. When we first landed there was a engineer on the beach who'd just gotten his leg blown off. He was hollering for a medic."
Americans troops managed to break through a steep section of the hills over the beach and then attack the German fortifications from behind, but 2,000 men were killed and 3,000 wounded at Omaha alone. In Theis's Regiment, 341 were killed and 241 wounded on D-Day.
Stories from war
Despite the obvious horror of his experiences, Theis mostly talked about humorous anecdotes. "There was this guy with us who had a brand new pair of false teeth," he said of riding the landing craft towards Omaha beach. "He heaved, and his teeth went right off the side."
Shortly after capturing the French village of Vierville, Theis came upon a French bank that had been blown apart. The bank was full of French money, and Theis filled a knapsack with the cash. Afterwards he was told the money was worthless because there would be new invasion money printed to replace the existing French currency. "So I threw that knapsack over the hedgerow," Theis said. Ultimately, the currency was never switched out. "Some farmer found it and he's a rich man," he laughed.
"In Holland—we were held up there for a while—and there were some chickens running around. Chickens and a little pig," Theis said, grinning and waving his arms to show how the chickens scurried around. "And this one guy from our outfit caught the chickens and the pig and sent them back to the mess hall. So we had chicken and a little pork."
Theis has received the Presidential Unit Citation, the European Theater Service Medal, a Bronze Service Arrowhead, the Croix de Guerre, the Distinguished Unit Badge, and four Overseas Service Bars, in addition to his Purple Hearts and Legion of Honor medal. However, he did not always charge fearlessly in the face of death. Theis became a Sergeant at one point, but he was demoted for refusing to lead his men through enemy fire.
"We had this new lieutenant," Theis explained. "He said, 'We are going to move up to the next hedgerow.' I said, 'No. I am not going to take these guys up there.'" Theis and his comrades would have had to run across an open field with German soldiers shooting from all sides to make it to the next hedgerow. "If you would have moved into the open field, you would have been killed," Theis said. "[The lieutenant] was calling me every name under the sun. Then I was back to private."
Theis, the lieutenant, and their men went different ways, achieved their objective, and survived, but that was the end of Theis's days as a Sergeant.
A letter from the
"Tom took care of that, I had no idea," Theis said of receiving his most recent medal. Tom Theis, John Theis, Sr.'s son, helped him apply for the medal.
"We didn't hear anything, and didn't hear anything, and we thought, 'well this, will be a while,'" Tom Theis said. "So when we did hear, it was a surprise."
In a letter to John Theis, Sr., the French Consulate in Chicago writes, "Thanks to the courage of these soldiers, to our American Friends and Allies, France has been living in peace for the past six decades. I want you to know that for us, the French People, they are heroes."
"It's nice that almost 70 years after the invasion, the French are still aware and recognizing the veterans who served and helped liberate France," Tom Theis said.
"It's a good feeling," John Theis, Sr. said of receiving medals. "I mean, you're recognized. Whoever got them, it means something, not just me alone, but for all servicemen. Medals that they got, they're entitled to. Personally you might not think you're entitled to them, but you get them."
Many neighbors and friends from Rollingstone were at the VFW to see John Theis, Sr. awarded the Legion of Honor medal. Theis joked that he thought it would be a dozen, maybe, not the scores of people gathered to recognize and thank him for his service. "Jeez, that was surprising," he laughed.