The Legion of Honor Medal, the highest order of merit in France for outstanding achievements in military or civilian life.
The Legion of Honor Medal, the highest order of merit in France for outstanding achievements in military or civilian life.

World War II veteran Duane Hyde wishes the United States was better about honoring its history and the soldiers like him who served. He’s returned to France two times in the last 10 years, and is always warmly welcomed by the people who remember their alliance that toppled the Axis Powers.

It was there more than 75 years ago that he battled the Germans with his 70th Infantry Division, earning commendations during his time in the Army that include the Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge, The Bronze Star, The Good Conduct Medal and the European-African Middle Eastern Theater Campaign Medal.

Hyde was the guest of honor last month at the French Consulate in San Francisco, where Consul General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens presented the 95-year-old veteran with the Legion of Honor Medal, the highest order of merit in France for outstanding achievements in military or civilian life.

“I was a good soldier. I was aggressive and did what I was taught to do,” Hyde said, “but I think it was a way of France — 75 years later — letting us know they still remember.”

Hyde joined the Army Reserves in 1943, and had expected to be able to finish his semester in college, he said, but soon was off to Camp Callen in California for basic training. There he was accepted to begin training to be a pilot, but losses on the front line were taking a toll.

“I was off to training, and on April Fool’s Day we all got on the daily parade grounds, and they said, ‘Sorry, guys, you’re going into the infantry,” Hyde said.

He had to repeat basic training in Oregon, but this time for the infantry, where the 70th Infantry Division Trailblazers were activated.

From there he went to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to be fitted with new gear. Hyde volunteered to fit troops with new boots, and was bothered when told the old ones would be burned.

By the time Hyde and his division were on a flight from Boston to Southern France, The Battle of Normandy, which began on D-Day (June 6, 1944), had already passed and the coast had been fortified.

“Even Eisenhower thought the war would be done by Christmas,” Hyde said.

The 70th Infantry Division took a boxcar to Alsace to support the troops on the front line, which were lacking heavy weapons, medics, communications and even top-brass leadership.

“Our commanding general was still in the United States, and we were on the front lines,” Hyde said.

Operation Nordwind was the last major German offensive of World War II, and it began on Dec. 31, 1944.

In the liberated town of Haganaugh, Hyde was ordered to join a jeep driver to check a road parallel to their perimeter for mines. Troops had orders to shoot anything they saw.

“They didn’t tell the others on the line, ‘Don’t shoot these guys,’” said Hyde, who avoided taking a bullet from 30-caliber machine gunners during the mission. “You could see that yellow thing coming right at ya.”

No mines were found.

The day before Hyde was wounded and forced to return to the states, the Trailblazers successfully advanced on a German unit entrenched in the Hartz Mountains.

“They dug the foxhole, and we took it over and had a great night’s sleep for once,” Hyde said.

It was January, and the freezing conditions had taken their toll on many of Hyde’s fellow soldiers; many suffered frostbite and trench foot, where long exposure to cold water turned feet black and killed surface tissue. Hyde said he would keep an extra pair of wool socks under his arms.

After the bodies of the dead Nazis were removed from the foxhole, Hyde and his fellow soldiers claimed their blankets and huddled together.

The next morning he was told to get up and get a hot breakfast, which was another treat on the mountain, where troops were living on C-rations.

But on his way to get food the Germans attacked, and an 88MM mortar shell exploded near Hyde, injuring him and two other soldiers.

“An 88 was a great gun,” Hyde said. “It was better than anything we had, frankly.”

They all survived, he said, but the flesh and bone from the heel of one of Hyde’s feet was blown off.

He was transported to Paris for surgery, but then had to return to Boston for more medical attention. From there he went to Baxter Hospital in Spokane for another surgery.

Hyde said he was eventually cleared for light service as an Army meat inspector. Even that had its hazards, he said, having once been briefly stuck in a freezer when the lights went out.

Hyde was at Fort Lewis in Tacoma when he was honorably discharged in January 1946.

Photo courtesy of the French Consulate in San Francisco: Hyde accepts the Legion of Honor from Consul General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens on Feb. 12 in San Francisco.

The World War II veteran went back to school for his bachelor’s degree at Jamestown College, where he met his wife, Joyce, and from there he attended medical school at the University of Chicago.

It wasn’t his injuries and the medical attention he received afterward that inspired him to become a doctor, he said.

Hyde was born in Almont, North Dakota, in 1923, his father being a founding member of the town. He had built a lumber mill, grain elevator and a school there in the early 1900s.

“I spent a lot of time on my dad’s farm,” he said. “They had one of those too.”

Rooster gonads had once been a delicacy, and Hyde learned how to caponize the birds when he was 14, using a scalpel and rib separators. The gonads sold for 35 cents a pound.

“I thought I was a big-time operator,” Hyde said.

He did his doctoral training at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, which provided great experience for the longtime family practitioner.

“I think I delivered probably 200 babies in my training,” Hyde said.

Hyde moved to King City, California, in the 1950s, where he went on to help build the Mee Memorial Hospital.

He stayed in King City after retirement, and also built a cabin in Big Sur.

During a trip to Mexico to meet their two daughters, Joyce Hyde fell and broke her hip. She did not survive the surgery.

Hyde said he became isolated after that, and he found it harder to keep things up around the house in King City, which resulted in him moving into an independent living facility in Monterrey. When he was struck with illness there, his daughter, Diane Rorhbach, visited and invited him to move to Seattle to be close to her.

“She’s a dream gal — anything I need,” Hyde said.

He now lives at Aegis of Queen Anne on Galer.

Despite needing a walker to move around, Hyde participates in the morning Balance Fit classes and walks around the block every day. He’s often distinguished by his bolo ties and WWII Trailblazers hat.

“When I go down to the park with it, I get some very interesting conversation,” Hyde said.

Now he’s working on a thank-you letter to send to the consul general in San Francisco, who presented Hyde with the Legion of Honor medal on Feb. 12, the highest decoration in France for which there are five degrees. Hyde’s medal puts him in the rank of chevalier (knight). Joined by his family, Hyde accepted the award on behalf of the heroes that never left France.

“I think we can all agree that the real heroes are those marked by crosses in France and those whose remains were shipped to their homes in the United States,” Hyde said in his prepared speech for the occasion. “Lincoln said it so well, ‘Those who gave their last full measure of devotion.’”